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November 9, 2009  |  Download PDF  |  Share

Wal-Mart’s Sick Leave Policy Risks Spreading Swine Flu

Retail Giant Flouts Recommendations of Centers for Disease Control

November 3, 2009

“Everyone is coming sick.  We have no choice.”
-Wal-Mart employee


Punishing workers for taking sick leave puts Wal-Mart on track to be a major spreader of swine flu this fall. 
The retail giant gives workers demerits and deducts pay for staying home when they are sick or to care for a sick child…..

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is strongly recommending that employers “advise workers to be alert to any signs of fever and other signs of influenza-like illness before reporting to work…. stay home if they are ill.” And that “employers should prepare to institute flexible workplace and leave policies for their workers.” 

Wal-Mart’s policies routinely flout the CDCs recommendations, putting both associates and shoppers at risk.
 
Punishing workers for taking sick leave puts Wal-Mart on track to be a major spreader of swine flu this fall.  The retail giant gives workers demerits and deducts pay for staying home when they are sick or to care for a sick child.

In interviews with Wal-Mart “associates” at stores across New York State, employees confirmed that they had no choice but to work sick.  One Wal-Mart employee from a supercenter explained:  “Plenty of girls are coughing their brains out.  But they cannot go home because of points.  Everyone comes in sick.  You cant stay home and God forbid if you leave early.”  “Associates” –including food handlers working in the grocery, meat and even deli departments—are routinely coming to work with the flu, conjunctivitis, fevers, strep throat, diarrhea and vomiting.  It is only when an employee is coughing too loudly and violently that he or she will be transferred from the food section to another department, where the sick worker will still be interacting with customers.

An experienced worker at a Wal-Mart discount store similarly confirmed that “people are coming in sick all the time.”  In fact, just last week several cashiers at her store came to work with flu-like symptoms, only staying home when they were so sick it was impossible for them to work.  (The most contagious period for swine flu is at the beginning of the illness.)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is strongly recommending that employers “advise workers to be alert to any signs of fever and other signs of influenza-like illness before reporting to work every day, and notify their supervisors and stay home if they are ill.” The CDC goes on to recommend that “business and other employers should prepare to institute flexible workplace and leave policies for their workers.”  The CDC alerts employers to “expect sick employees to be out for about 3 to 5 days in most cases, even if anti-viral medications are used.”  Further, “Employers should maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for an ill family member.  Employees should be aware that more workers may need to stay home to care for ill children or other ill family members than usual.”

Wal-Marts policies routinely flout the CDCs recommendations, putting both associates and shoppers at risk.  Another Wal-Mart associate told us, “Wal-Mart wont even look at a doctors note.  If you are out sick, youre going to get a demerit and lose eight hours wages.”  The H1N1 virus, or swine flu, is known to spread from person to person when those infected cough or sneeze, propelling virus-carrying droplets into the air that can be inhaled by people in the vicinity, and onto surfaces like countertops that customers touch.

On October 1, 2009, Ken Senser, a senior vice-President for Wal-Mart distributed a memo nation-wide on “Flu Season Preparation” to all Wal-Mart associates.  Wal-Mart associates were told to “cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze,” “wash your hands regularly,” and “avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.”

Not a single word was said about the critical CDC recommendation that workers with “any signs of fever and other signs of influenza-like illness…stay home if they are ill.”  Instead, Mr. Senser goes on to instruct all “associates” to: “familiarize yourself with relevant company policies including those for attendance, sick pay and return to work following an illness.”

But Wal-Marts policies on sick leave are the problem.  Wal-Mart has a punitive point (demerit) system that punishes workers who cannot come to work because they are ill or their children need care.  Associates who miss a day due to sickness (or for any other reason) will receive a one point demerit, along with the loss of eight hours wages.  Moreover, employees who “have more than three absence occurrences in a rolling six-month period…will be disciplined.”  (“Attendance/Punctuality Policy (PD-52) New York,” January 2008.) 

Workers with four absences in any six-month period—no matter what the reason—will be disciplined.  A fifth occurrence—like a sick day—will result in “active coaching” by management, and a sixth occurrence” will activate a “Decision Day,” when an “associate” can either be terminated or put on a year-long trial period, during which a worker can be fired for any infraction, no matter how insignificant.  During this year-long probation the worker cannot receive a promotion.

This is the reason Wal-Mart employees must drag themselves to work no matter how sick they are.  Not only due to the fear of termination, but with associates typically living from paycheck to paycheck, they cannot afford the loss of eight hours wages.

Single mothers working at Wal-Mart are under particular stress.  In September, an associate received a call from her four-year-olds pre-school telling her to come pick up her child, who had a fever of 103 F.  Despite the fact that she had worked four hours, for leaving work to pick up her child she received a point and lost the rest of the days wages.  Parents have no choice but to load their children up with Motrin and Dimetap to mask their symptoms so they can go to school.

In his memo, the senior vice-president advised Wal-Mart associates to “have back-up childcare plans in the event your child cannot attend school.”  Here too, Wal-Mart ignores the CDCs recommendation that employers “be prepared to allow workers to stay home to care for children if schools are dismissed or childcare programs are closed… Ensure that your leave policies are flexible and non-punitive.”  (CDC Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to the 2009-2010 Influenza Season, August 19, 2009)

This fits Wal-Marts longstanding business model of externalizing and outsourcing as many costs as it can.  Rather than developing affordable healthcare, Wal-Mart assists its associates in enrolling their children in state-supported Child Health Plus/Medicaid programs.  Rather than taking responsibility to follow the CDCs recommendation that employers adopt flexible leave policies so that parents can stay home with their sick children, Wal-Mart advises its associates to “have back-up childcare plans in the event your child cannot attend school.”  This leaves associates to scramble on their own to find family members or relatives who can take time off to watch their children, or to find a babysitter willing to do this.

This led a Wal-Mart employee to note that, “Even during the flu season, Wal-Mart wants to be first, and our childrens health and schooling comes second.”  Another associate, a young mother, said:  “It makes you feel horrible.  Wal-Mart puts you in a position where you are supposed to put your job ahead of your children.”

Asked about Wal-Marts “family-oriented policy,” another employee bluntly stated: “That is in the toilet.  They dont care about families.”

For the full report, please download the PDF file (above)

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