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November, 03 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.”

 

 Centers for Disease Control Recommendations

To Prevent Spread of Swine Flu

I.) "Sick persons should stay home"


* "One of the best ways to reduce the spread of influenza is to keep sick people away from well people."
* Employers should "advise workers to be alert to any signs of fever and other signs of influenzalike illness before reporting to work each day, and notify their supervisor and stay home if they are ill."
* "CDC recommends that employers with influenza-like illness remain at home until at least 24 hours after they are free of fever (100°°° F or greater) or signs of a fever, without the use of feverreducing medications."
* Employers should "Expect sick employees to be out for about 3 to 5 days in most cases, even if anti-viral medications are used."
* Employers should "Ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and employees are well aware of these policies."
* Do not require a doctor's note for workers who are ill with influenza-like illness to validate
their illness or to return to work, as doctors offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and may not be able to provide such documentation in a timely way."
* "Employers should maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for an ill family member.  Employers should be aware that more workers may need to stay at home to care for ill children or other family members than is usual."
* "People at higher risk for complications from influenza include pregnant women; children
under 5 years of age; adults and children who have chronic lung disease (such as asthma), heart disease, diabetes, diseases that suppress the immune system and other chronic medical conditions, and those who are 65 years or older."

 
II. Taking Care of Sick Children


* Employers should "be prepared to allow workers to stay home to care for children if schools are
dismissed or childcare programs are closed."
* Employers should "ensure that your leave policies are flexible and non-punitive." 

 

 

Wal-Mart Policies and Practices
Directly Contradict CDC Recommendations
To Combat Swine Flu 

 

I. Sick Employees Punished for Staying Home:

 

Any Wal-Mart employee with swine flu or other serious communicable illnesses will be punished if they stay home, receiving a point (demerit)-five or six points can lead to termination-and incurring the loss of eight hours wages.

Wal-Mart's policy on "authorized absences" does not cover sick days, including for those suffering from the H1N1 virus. (See Wal-Mart's "Attendance/Punctuality Policy (PD-52)-National Field and New York," January 8, 2008)  To avoid punishment, employees would have to apply for a sick day "at least three weeks in advance," which is, of course, ridiculous.  "Requested time away from work which has been approved by your supervisor or manager and included in the schedule at least three (3) weeks in advance is not considered an absence."  Even with a request made three weeks in advance, there is no guarantee that the day off will be granted.

In Wal-Mart-speak, taking a sick day is referred to as an "occurrence.":  "Occurrence means any time away from scheduled work that is not approved by your supervisor or manager as per set forth in this Policy,"-which, again, does not recognize sick days as an "authorized absence."

Unauthorized absences apply not only to sick days, but also to days workers must take off to care for a sick child or elderly parent, because of school closings, car accidents, snow storms, preventative medicine such as getting blood work done, attending a funeral for a nephew, and so on.  Each "occurrence" results in the worker receiving a point.  "If you have three occurrences in a rolling six month period, you will have the opportunity to discuss your absences with management during a personal discussion.  If you have more than three absences in a rolling six-month period, you will be disciplined."  Workers can be terminated when they receive five or six "occurrence"-demerits-in any six-month period.  Wal-Mart employees live in fear that the next family emergency will result in their being fired.

Not only do Wal-Mart employees receive a point if they are out sick, they also lose their wages.  "You must wait one scheduled workday before using your available Illness Protection pay.  An additional waiting period is required for each separate absence..."  (Wal-Mart's Illness Pay Policy (PD-63)-National," October 1, 2009.)  This means that even workers who have accrued paid sick time cannot use it and will be docked eight hours pay for each new sick day they must take.

The potent combination of punitive demerits and the loss of wages for taking a sick day-even if one is suffering from the swine flu-routinely drives sick Wal-Mart employees to work, where they are in a position to spread their illness to other workers and customers.

 

Moreover, Wal-Mart employees who are out sick for more than three days must apply for a Leave of Absence.  "If you will be absent for more than three days, you should submit a completed Request for Leave of Absence form.  You should submit the required documentation for approval to your supervisor.  Requesting leave of absence does not automatically assure the leave will be approved.  Please refer to the Leave of Absence Policy (PD-24) for additional information."

This means Wal-Mart employees who may have the H1N1 virus, and are being advised by the CDC to remain at home for three to five days until they are symptom free, must file for a Leave of Absence, which will include getting a note from a doctor, which the CDC views as a waste of precious time, given the work load doctors are facing during the current epidemic.

While the CDC advises employers to allow their employees to remain home to care for sick children, Wal-Mart instructs its employees to "have back-up child care plans in the event your child cannot attend school."  (Memo to all Wal-Mart U.S. associates on Flu Season Preparation, from senior vice-president Ken Senser, October 1, 2009)

Rather than allow-let alone encourage-Wal-Mart employees to stay home to care for their young children who may have H1N1 influenza, or because of school closings due to the current epidemic, Wal-Mart places a further burden on its employees by instructing them to make arrangements so that other people can care for their children.

During this swine flu pandemic, Wal-Mart's policies, in every important way, ignore and contradict CDC recommendations, thereby placing its own employees and Wal-Mart shoppers at risk.

When the largest private employer in the U.S. sets the wrong example in the fight against the H1N1 pandemic, the American people should take notice

Wal-Mart is the largest private sector employer in the U.S., with 1.4 million employees in 4,258 stores across the country.  In New York State alone, Wal-Mart has 109 stores and 37,784 employees.  Withits tremendous size and sales reaching $401 billion (in the fiscal year ending January 31, 2009), WalMart services more than 150 million shoppers each week.

Wal-Mart shoppers, employees and their families are being put at risk when senior Wal-Martexecutives ignore and contradict critically important Centers for Disease Control guidelines meant tocontrol and prevent the spread of swine flu, which is already widespread in 48 states.

 

What Wal-Mart Must Do

 

Wal-Mart must immediately end its punitive point system, which gives workers demerits that can lead to firing for taking a sick day, while also docking their wages.  More than any other WalMart policy, it is the point system and loss of wages which routinely drives employees to work no matter how sick they are, including if they are suffering flu-like symptoms.

Wal-Mart employees feel it is completely unjust that management automatically deducts the first eight hours wages of any sick day or leave, especially given how hard they must work to accrue paid sick leave.  A Wal-Mart employee must work 40-hour weeks for an entire month to accrue just 4 hours of sick leave.  As one worker put it:  "It's our money and we worked hard to earn it.  It's not right that we can't use our own money to cover sick days."

The vast majority of current Wal-Mart employees are too terrified to speak openly and on the record, or even to name their stores fear of retaliation.  "Everyone knows you have to be quiet," as one associate put it, "We can't talk.  Everyone is afraid and will never say anything critical" of Wal-Mart. 

A senior Wal-Mart employee agreed:  "Fear and need will keep things as they are."Another point of consensus that we heard from Wal-Mart workers across New York State is that: "Everyday shoppers have no idea what is really going on at Wal-Mart."

The National Labor Committee will soon be putting out a longer report based on our interviews with Wal-Mart employees.

 

 

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