Risking Demerits or Spreading H1N1?

Could the policies of some companies contribute to H1N1's spread?

November 4, 2009, 6:57 PM

Nov. 5, 2009 — -- Prompted by reports from many other Walmart employees across the country, the National Labor Committee (NLC), a nonprofit organization that supports workers' rights, published a report Tuesday bashing Walmart's sick leave policy, which they said "gives workers demerits and deducts pay for staying home when they are sick or to care for a sick child."

The NLC claimed that demands on employees to work through illness positions Walmart stores to contribute to H1N1 influenza -- commonly called swine flu -- transmission in the coming flu season.

"They live in fear and dread," said Charles Kernaghan, director of the NLC. "Employees at Walmart have no choice but to get themselves to work, no matter how sick they are."

Walmart was quick to respond by saying that its policies encourage employees to stay home if they are ill.

"Let me start by assuring you that Walmart is encouraging our associates who may be ill to stay home and get well. That's in everyone's best interests," Gisel Ruiz, senior vice president of the People Division for Walmart U.S., told ABC News on Thursday. "Because of all the news around H1N1, we feel it is important to remind everyone that our sick policy provides them paid time off if they get the flu. Of course, no one will lose their job if they get H1N1 or if they have to stay home with a child who has the H1N1."

Ruiz also submitted a memo to its human resources associates that included the following details about the retail giant's time off policy. The memo reads:

But according to the NLC report, which includes personal accounts from Walmart employees as well as documents outlining the company's attendance and sick pay policies, Walmart doles out points or demerits to employees who must miss work due to their own or a child's illness or because of an emergency not specified by the company.

The report also maintains that four absences in a six-month period lead to disciplinary action that can result in termination if more points are accrued. A clean record for six consecutive months erases all points from an employee's record.

Experts agree with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to employers, which advises people in the workforce 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. "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 are the ones most likely to spread the disease."

Elizabeth Casman, associate research professor in Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., said that about one out of three flu cases may be spread by mucus on the hand touching an object and 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 they estimate that a sick worker can infect one in 10 co-workers.

But the company does not feel they are endangering customers or employees and say their policies are sufficient to deal with the declared H1N1 pandemic.

"As in the past, Walmart is encouraging our associates who may be ill to stay at home, get well and avoid infecting customers and other associates," said Greg Rossiter, another spokesperson for Walmart.

He also refuted the NLC's claim that they automatically dock pay from sick workers.

"We do not automatically deduct eight hours of sick time from worker's wages," Rossiter said. "With vacation, personal time and accrued sick time, an associate can continue to receive pay or compensation when they're sick and that's our goal."

Walmart Tries Education, Prevention

He added that the company has increased efforts to educate employees on the importance of proper hygiene and cough and sneeze etiquette to prevent illness.

Meanwhile, emergency legislation, introduced Tuesday in Congress, promises five paid sick days to those who are ill at work and are sent home by their employers.

However, experts are lukewarm that the bill, if passed, will 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 said, adding that Walmart employees typically earn above minimum wage, even if some live paycheck-to-paycheck. "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."

And, 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 said. "It makes it difficult to legislate communicable disease."

Nor do many yield to CDC guidance.

"It's not unusual not to follow CDC recommendations," Horovitz said, citing those who chose not to get vaccinated against seasonal influenza, let alone H1N1.

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 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."

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