Nov. 6, 2009 -- Walmart Stores Inc., the nation's largest employer, is defending its sick leave policy after a workers' advocacy group issued a scathing report saying the company made it difficult for employees to take sick time for themselves and their children.
The report, issued this week by the National Labor Committee, criticizes Walmart for giving demerits to workers when they're out sick and making them pay for their first sick day with a personal day or vacation day, or not get paid.
Walmart told "Good Morning America" that company officials encourage employees to stay home if they or their children are sick, and sent a memo to "GMA" that will be issued to human resource managers at stores across the country saying, "We must be clear that no one will lose their job if they get H1N1."
With flu season and fears of the H1N1 virus in full swing, workers across the nation have to decide what to do if they or their children get sick.
Whether to stay home, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, and risk being penalized at work is a dilemma at Walmart, authors of the labor report conclude.
"It turns out Walmart has a punitive point system where workers receive a demerit if they take a sick day," Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, told "GMA." "No matter what the reason. The workers have to drag themselves to work sick."
Demerits for Sick Leave
Two women who have worked a combined 20-plus years at Walmart shared their experiences with "Good Morning America," asking for anonymity out of fear of retribution by the company.
One worker, a 33-year-old mother of two, said her daughter woke up with a 103-degree fever, but she still went to work.
"I had to go to work today," she said. "I have three points. I had to choose my work over my daughter today."
According to the report, which includes personal accounts from Walmart employees, as well as documents outlining the company's attendance and sick-pay policies, the company doles out points or demerits to employees who miss work because of illness or an emergency not recognized by the company.
Four absences in a six-month period lead to disciplinary action that can result in termination if more points are accrued, according to the report. A clean record for six consecutive months erases all points from an employee's record.
Walmart on Sick Leave Policy
"We encourage our associates to stay home if they're not feeling well, or if they need to take care of a sick child," Gisel Ruiz, senior vice president of the People Division for Walmart U.S., told "Good Morning America."
As for the first day a worker calls in sick, Ruiz said, it "really [is] back to the option of the employee of whether they want to use their personal time, personal paid day off or a vacation day.
"That's just the way that our policy is written," she said. "That's our policy."
Workers at Walmart have to use a sick day, or a personal day the first day they call in sick, or take no pay at all. Sick pay doesn't kick in until the second day.
The National Labor Committee said that demands put on employees to work through illness puts company stores in a position to contribute to the spread of the H1N1 virus -- commonly called swine flu.
"They live in fear and dread," Kernaghan told ABCNews.com.
Walmart said its policy does account for extraordinary circumstances, telling "Good Morning America" that no employee will be fired for getting H1N1 flu.
"Our attendance policy is written in a way that is flexible to meet the needs of our associates, but, by the same token, it allows us to take care of our customers and run our business."
But some workers see it differently.
"You go to work sick, you try to do the best that you can," said the second employee "GMA" interviewed. "It's terrible."
Flexible Leave Could Help Many
Experts agreed with recommendations from the CDC, which advises people in the work force to stay home if they have flu-like symptoms and employers to develop "flexible leave policies" so that workers can stay home and care for themselves and their families "without fear of losing their jobs."
"I do believe Walmart is creating a public health threat by encouraging workers to come to work [sick]," said Robert Field, professor of health management and policy at the Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia. "It is in a position, as a retailer, to create particular exposures for the public. ... It's such a ubiquitous store, and it particularly caters to families and kids who are the ones most likely to spread the disease."
Elizabeth Casman, associate research professor in public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said that about one out of three flu cases may be spread by mucus on the hand touching an object, pointed out that this makes certain situations such as the checkout counter at a store, for example, a high-risk area.
The CDC recommends people remain home until 24 hours after flu symptoms disappear to prevent spreading infection, and it estimates that a sick worker can infect one in 10 co-workers.
Emergency legislation, introduced Tuesday in Congress, promises five paid sick days to those who are sick at work and are sent home by their employers.
But experts are lukewarm that the bill, if passed, would be effective at stopping the spread of H1N1, noting that despite being sent home, a sick person in a work environment for any period of time can spread infection.
And Field said such legislation could have a paradoxical effect, inducing a sick worker to come to work to be sent home with pay rather than stay home in the first place without pay.
Nor is Kernaghan impressed with the bill.
"It might help low-wage workers or workers at near minimum wage," he told ABCNews.com, adding that Walmart employees typically earn above minimum wage. "But I'm not sure it will help Walmart workers. Managers are not going to tell workers to go home sick because they tell them to come into work sick."
Many Continue to Head to Work Sick
Regardless of company policies on sick leave or attendance, for some, the drive to move forward with work and earn a paycheck can override the need to protect oneself or others from infection.
"People make choices that defeat good policy," Casman of Carnegie Mellon said. "It makes it difficult to legislate communicable disease."
But, as part of public health efforts to combat what has proved to be a persistent, if relatively mild, virus, some say rigid employee policies deserve a second look.
"Worse than losing the pay, it's punitive," Field of Drexel University said. "If the president has gone so far as to declare a national emergency. ... As good citizens we do what we can, even if it means suspending the [points] policy on a temporary basis."