Skip to main content

Does Wal-Mart's Sick Leave Policy Spread Swine Flu?

Retail giant Wal-Mart is defending its sick leave policy after accusations that it makes it difficult for ailing workers -- even those with swine flu -- to call in sick.

The New York Times reports Wal-Mart is one of many businesses where workers say they are discouraged from calling in sick. At Wal-Mart, when employees miss one or more days of work, they generally get a demerit point. If they obtain four points over a six-month period, they begin receiving warnings that can lead to dismissal.

The Times also writes: In addition, when Wal-Mart employees call in sick, their first day off is not a paid sick day (although workers can use a vacation day or personal day), but the second and third days are paid. The policy is meant to keep workers who are not actually sick from taking a day off to, say, go fishing.

Wal-Mart support manager Paul Hotchkiss contracted swine flu several weeks ago. He couldn't see a doctor because he can't afford Wal-Mart's health insurance. He also couldn't afford to lose his job, so he reported for work. His supervisor sent him home because he looked pale.

“There are a lot of people who have swine flu right now who are going in because they worry about getting fired for having too many points,” Hotchkiss said.

Sometimes it's not even the employee getting sick -- it's a family member. Another Wal-Mart employee told ABC News her child woke up with 103 fever one morning, but she still reported for duty.

"I had to go to work today," she said. "I have three points. I had to choose my work over my daughter today."

But Wal-Mart is defending its sick leave policy. "We encourage our associates to stay home if they're not feeling well, or if they need to take care of a sick child," Gisel Ruiz, senior vice president of the People Division for Wal-Mart U.S., told "Good Morning America."

In addition, company officials told ABC they would send a memo to all stores that will say, "We must be clear that no one will lose their job if they get H1N1."

Wal-Mart said its policy does account for extraordinary circumstances. "Our attendance policy is written in a way that is flexible to meet the needs of our associates, but, by the same token, it allows us to take care of our customers and run our business."

But some experts say Wal-Mart is putting business over the health of its employees and customers.

"I do believe Wal-Mart 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 in Philadelphia. "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 who are the ones most likely to spread the disease."


Popular Video