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Wal-Mart's Punitive Policies Drive Employees to Work Sick

December 16, 2009  |  Share

"Everyone comes to work sick"


1.) This woman worked full time in the deli section of a Wal-Mart supercenter in Pennsylvania.  Every Wal-Mart worker we spoke with begged us not to mention their name or even their store's location for fear of retaliation, including possibly being fired.

"Everyone comes to work sick," she told us—including associates handling food.   In the deli section, "plenty of girls come coughing their brains out, but can't go home because of points."  It is only "if you are coughing too loudly that they will switch you to another department."  She herself was working sick in the deli section, until she was hospitalized for a week in early 2009 for having pneumonia.  "Since you can't take days off," she told us, her cough had just gotten worse, going deeper into her lungs.  "You can't stay home, and God forbid if you have to leave early."  For having pneumonia and being hospitalized, she received a demerit, lost eight hours wages, and was required to take a leave of absence.  In the deli section, it was difficult, because she was working in a "hot area"—fryer, oven, hot case—while also having to go in and out of a freezer to get meat.  "Everyone is sweating and your hair is all wet, but we can't use fans because of the dust."

This woman's ten-year-old step daughter spends every other weekend with her.  The child has cerebral palsy and suffers from seizures.  Under Wal-Mart's new "Open Availability" policy, management is demanding that all associates be available 24-7.  This woman's hours and days off were changed.  Instead of having the weekend off to be with her stepdaughter, she now has Monday and Thursday off.  "They want you to live for Wal-Mart," she said.  "A flood of people would leave Wal-Mart if they could find other work.  Fear and need will keep things the way they are."

2.) This woman also worked for Wal-Mart.  She is among the Wal-Mart workers the National Labor Committee is speaking with in Pennsylvania, Florida, Idaho, New York and Texas.

A few months ago her two-and-a-half year old son fell off a bed while playing and bit his tongue.  He was bleeding from the mouth and she raced him to the emergency room.  Fortunately, the doctor said the child would not need stitches and that the cut should heal itself.  Still, her son was badly shaken up and crying.  She knew he just wanted to be with her. She knew she could not leave him.  He was so young and traumatized.  She stayed home and had to take a demerit and the loss of eight hours' wages.  "It makes you feel horrible," she said.  "Wal-Mart puts you in the position where you are supposed to put your job ahead of your children."

When she was near the end of her pregnancy and her son was three days late, she worked right up to the time of his birth because she has already been "written up" for four absences and was afraid she would be terminated if the took more time off.

She also told us of an associate who received a point for attending his son's birth.

When her older son, who was five, was sent home from his pre-school with a fever, her 14-year-old sister had to babysit with him.  Everyone had to pitch in—her sister, her father, an uncle—because she was unable to take more demerits or the loss of wages.  For attending a school meeting and arriving a few minutes late to work, she had already received a third of a point and lost wages.

Like everyone else, she also went to work sick.  Unable to take any more demerits or afford more loss of wages.  It is no secret that Wal-Mart employees survive from paycheck to paycheck.  The loss of eight hours' wages, nearly $80, is something they cannot afford.  She had strep throat, but could not take time off to care for herself.  The infection spread to other parts of her body and she became so dehydrated she passed out.  She was taken to the hospital where she received fluids.  She was out three days, which cost her a demerit and the loss of a day's wages.

When we asked her if food handlers in her Wal-Mart store also came in sick, she replied yes.  In fact, at the very time we were speaking with her, a man in the meat department had "pink eye" —conjunctivitis—which is extremely contagious, and another worker had the flu.

3.) We asked a senior Wal-Mart employee in New York State if there had been any improvements regarding sick leave policy in her Wal-Mart discount store following the Good Morning America story on ABC.  The store manager did hold a meeting, she said, saying that "everyone must be careful and wash their hands using bacterial wash.  But nothing was said about not coming in to work and staying home if you have the flu."

Our contact told us of a young woman in the Lawn & Garden department who was having a difficult pregnancy and asked her supervisor to be assigned to lighter duty.  But she was turned down.  The supervisor said there was no light duty work available in the store.  Her job as an inventory control specialist required a lot of bending, lifting, stocking shelves and pulling heavy pallets.  The pregnant woman was often sick and was warned about her attendance.  Wal-Mart management suggested she take an unpaid leave of absence, since they would not support her receiving Disability pay.

There are some supervisors who are "like bullies who like to intimidate workers."

4.) "Wal-Mart's policy [on the flu] has not changed, and they have not said a word to anyone," a very smart young Wal-Mart worker recently told us.  "No one knows of any change"and everyone continues coming to work, even if they are really sick."  She herself had the flu in late October, only taking off when she was so tired and sore she could barely move.  She was in bed for three days, received a demerit and lost a day's wages (despite having accrued sick leave).  "Everyone is coming to work sick, some with the flu."

One young woman, seven months pregnant and having a difficult time, must see her doctor every two weeks.  Every time she arrives at work late from her doctor's appointment, even if it is less than twenty minutes, she receives a third of a point.  Right now, this has built up to about three demerit points.  Oddly enough, technically, workers are not allowed to know how many points they have.  It's not posted anywhere, and the only way you can find out is to ask an assistant manager.  This pregnant woman lives in fear, as other workers do.  If you accumulate four demerits in any six-month period, you will receive a "verbal coaching" or a "written coaching."  One additional demerit means you cannot be promoted to a better job, or move up to full-time status if you work part-time.  In mid-November, this pregnant woman had to drag herself to work.  She looked terrible, but could not take any more points.  She spent the first two hours at work throwing up, until she could not take it any more and went home.  Even through she was at work two hours, she received a full demerit and lost six hours' wages.

Part-time workers do not accumulate any sick leave time.  It is only after two years that part time workers can begin to accrue vacation and personal time.  Over the course of a full year, part-time workers can build up to just 28 to 32 hours paid vacation hours and 12 hours of personal time.

Our source told us that morale is very low at her store and "pretty much everyone hates their jobs."  With all the recent staff cutbacks, shoppers are waiting longer for service and getting upset, "yelling at us all the time, screaming and cursing at us."  Asked what she thinks of Wal-Mart's family-oriented ads during the holidays, she responded, "It's a lot of Bull.  Wal-Mart is the least family-oriented workplace I have ever worked at in my life.  They don't care."

5.) Another young woman who has worked full time for two years at her Wal-Mart store told us:  "Absolutely everyone comes in sick"a while ago a CSM [customer service manager] came in so sick she was vomiting on the bathroom floor.  She couldn't afford not to come in."  She told us of another associate who had tonsillitis.  The woman's throat was swollen and she had a fever of 104.  Her doctor told her that she would be very contagious for the next 24 hours after taking her prescription and should stay home.  When she returned to work and tried to show her doctor's note to her supervisor, the supervisor told her, "You can keep that.  We don't need it."  The sick woman received a demerit and lost eight hours' wages.

The young woman we spoke with was herself very scared.  She is pregnant and will give birth in April.  A recent sonogram showed what could be an abnormal mass near the infant's kidney.  Her doctors advised her to go to a hospital in a nearby city, where she could get a more detailed sonogram and medical opinion.  At Wal-Mart a worker needing a day off must apply four weeks in advance, no matter what the emergency.  She is waiting to hear if management will grant her the day off, or if she will have to take a demerit and lose her wages.

6.) Nampa, Idaho Supercenter Violates Wal-Mart's Policy--Tricia worked 3 ½ years at Wal-Mart, before being fired for having H1N1 flu

Tricia worked full time as a cashier at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Nampa, Idaho.  She accommodated Wal-Mart, and never complained that she worked different shifts nearly every day and also worked on weekends, when the store was busiest.  Some days she worked from 5:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., while on other days her nine-hour shift was from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  Her days off were Thursday and Friday.  When she started out at Wal-Mart in early 2006, she earned a little over $6.50 an hour.  Three and a half years later, she was earning $9.20.

In all those years, Tricia had no problems with management.  She liked her job and was good at it, as her yearly wage increases showed.

Nor was Tricia sickly or prone to taking sick days.  In fact, she was in good shape, walking four miles each day, two miles to the Wal-Mart and two miles back.

The second week of October, 2009, the flu hit the Nampa Wal-Mart Supercenter with a vengeance.  Lots of workers had routinely been coming to work sick, because they could afford neither the demerit nor the loss of eight hours' wages.  However, by Saturday, October 11, more then two dozen workers were so ill that they could not possibly drag themselves to work.  Seventeen workers called in sick on Saturday, and nine others had to do the same on Sunday, October 12.  One can only imagine how many shoppers were exposed to the H1N1 virus, which had reached epidemic levels in 48 states.

Up to that point, store management had not held a single meeting with its employees to discuss precautions and preparations to deal with the H1N1 virus or seasonal flu.  Nor was anyone advised to stay home if they experienced flu-like symptoms.  In fact, it was not until October 18, after the flue had already broken out in the store, that management started distributing hand sanitizer.

Tricia came down with the flu on Wednesday, October 14, right after the first outbreak hit the store.  She called in sick, as she was exhausted and queasy with flu-like symptoms and did not want to spread the flu to other workers and customers.  She took a demerit and lost eight hours' wages.  Thursday and Friday were her days off and she remained in bed, but was unable to shake the flu.  She called in sick again and stayed out on Saturday and Sunday, October 17 and 18.  She took another point and again lost a day's wages.  Feeling a little better, Tricia returned to work on Monday, October 19.  But by 7:00 p.m. that night she was in an emergency room receiving oxygen and fluids.  Her husband and mother-in-law drove her to the hospital when they saw the color was completely washed out of her face.  She was so weak and tired she could barely walk.  She spent six hours in the emergency room, where the doctor wrote a note prescribing that she remain in bed for four or five days until she could finally shake the flu.  During  that time, she was too weak to even stand in the shower and needed help sitting down for a sponge bath.  She was out Tuesday and Wednesday, October 20 and 21 and took a third point, along with the loss of another eight hours' wages.

As Tricia already had three points —one for staying home to take care of her mother who had had double pneumonia—before being infected with the flu, the three flu demerits put her over the top.  With six points, she faced a disciplinary action known at Wal-Mart as a "Decision Day"—or "D-Day."  During a D-Day, the worker is required to write an essay on why they like working at Wal-Mart, why they should keep their job, and how they will improve in the future.   Based on what she writes, a worker is then either terminated or allowed to continue working.  But even those who pass their D-Day test —as Tricia did—are placed on probation for a full year, during which time they can be fired for the slightest infraction.

This is exactly what happened to Tricia.  On November 2, while she was working on cash register #21 at the cigarette counter, a customer asked her to watch his cart so he could go to look for a few items he had forgotten.  Tricia responded, certainly not in a nasty or aggressive manner, that she could not "babysit" his cart.  What she meant to say was that she had other customers to serve, and in any spare moment, she had to restock the cigarette counter shelves, which meant she would have to turn her back on the man's cart.  One could easily imagine the response of her supervisor had she seen Tricia standing around doing nothing.

The man complained to management about Tricia's behavior and —despite the fact that other than having the flu she had had no problems with her supervisors over the last three and a half years—Tricia was fired.

The workers at the Nampa Wal-Mart Supercenter have an expression.  They call it "cleaning out," when management fires workers for the least thing —perhaps because store traffic is slow, or to get rid of more expensive full time workers in order to hire cheaper part-timers.
There would never have been a Decision Day, had Tricia not gotten three points due to a severe case of flu, which means that if she had not been punished for having the flu, she would not have been fired.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Friday, November 6, said that Wal-Mart will not fire any worker for having swine flu.

Wal-Mart should immediately re-instate Tricia and the hundreds —perhaps even thousands—of other Wal-Mart "associates" who have also been terminated in large measure due to having come down with swine flu.



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