Wal-Mart's stingy sick-leave policy may contribute to swine flu's spread

Wal-Mart's policy of punishing workers for taking sick leave risks spreading swine flu.

So concludes a new report from the National Labor Committee that finds that employees of the Arkansas-based retail giant -- even its food handlers -- feel they have no choice but to work when they're sick. That's because the company gives workers demerits and deducts pay for staying home when they're sick or caring for sick children.

Said a worker at one Wal-Mart supercenter:

Plenty of girls are coughing their brains out. But they cannot go home because of points. Everyone comes in sick. You can't stay home and God forbid if you leave early.

The report found that the only time the company is removing sick workers from the food section is when they are coughing too loudly or violently -- and then the person is merely transferred to another department rather than being sent home.

Wal-Mart's sick-leave policy conflicts with recommendations for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which calls on employers to advise workers to be alert for symptoms of flu-like illness and to stay home if they are ill. The CDC also asks employers to allow workers to stay home to care for sick family members.

According to the NLC report, a senior vice president for Wal-Mart sent out a memo nationwide to all employees on preparing for the flu season. It told employees 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."

The memo goes on to tell employees to familiarize themselves with the company's sick leave policy. But as the NLC notes, that policy is the problem.

Wal-Mart has a demerit system that punishes workers who cannot come to work due to illness. Employees who miss a day due to sickness receive a one-point demerit and lose eight hours of wages.

Employees with more than three absences a six-month period face discipline, and a fifth absence -- even for a sick day -- will result in what the company calls "active coaching" by management.

A sixth absence leads to what Wal-Mart calls "Decision Day," when a worker can be either terminated or put on a year-long trial period during which time he or she can be fired for any infraction and cannot be promoted.

The situation is particularly difficult for Wal-Mart workers who are single parents. The NLC reports on an instance in which an employee got a call from her four-year-old's preschool telling her to pick up the child, who had a fever of 103 degrees F. Despite the fact that the employee had already worked for four hours that day, she got a demerit point for leaving and lost her wages for the rest of the day. The report says:

Parents have no choice but to load their children up with Motrin and Dimetap to mask their symptoms so they can go to school.

The NLC is calling on Wal-Mart to immediately end its demerit and wage docking policies.