Nov 3, 2009

Wal-Mart's Sick Leave Policy Puts Workers at Risk for Spreading H1N1

According to information released by the National Labor Committee, Walmart's punitative sick leave policy puts the employer "on track to on track to be a major spreader of swine flu this fall." The Committee says that Walmart "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) recommends that:
During an influenza pandemic, all sick people should stay home and away from the workplace, hand washing and covering coughs and sneezes should be encouraged, and routine cleaning of commonly touched surfaces should be performed regularly.
But Walmart has, according to the NLC's report, "routinely flouted" the CDC's recommendations. The NLC says that:
[A] Wal-Mart associate told us, “Wal-Mart won't even look at a doctors note. If you are out sick, youre going to get a demerit and lose eight hours wages.”
In fact, when the NLC interviewed Walmart associates across New York State, employees said:
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.
When the New York Times interviewed Walmart employee Paul Hotchkiss in Hastings, Minnesota, he said that:
the point system pressured him to report to work two weeks ago even though he had swine flu.

“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,” Mr. Hotchkiss said.

His supervisor sent him home because he looked pale, he said, adding that he did not see a doctor because he could not afford the company’s health insurance.

At a time when children and families nationwide are concerned about H1N1, Walmart needs to follow in the footsteps of more responsible employers, and follow the CDC's recommendations. They need to understand that punishing workers for being sick hurts, not helps in combating the H1N1 virus and keeping workers healthy.

Update #2: From a release by Education and Labor Committee:

U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), chair of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee, announced emergency temporary legislation today that will guarantee five paid sick days for a worker sent home or directed to stay home by their employer for a contagious illness, such as the H1N1 flu virus. The House Education and Labor Committee will hold a hearing on the legislation the week of November 16.

“Sick workers advised to stay home by their employers shouldn’t have to choose between their livelihood, and their coworkers’ or customer’s health,” said Miller. “This will not only protect employees, but it will save employers money by ensuring that sick employees don’t spread infection to co-workers and customers, and will relieve the financial burden on our health system swamped by those suffering from H1N1.”

Update #1: Pat Garofolo over at WonkRoom points out this response from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:
“The vast majority of employers provide paid leave of some sort,” said Randel K. Johnson, senior vice president for labor at the United States Chamber of Commerce. “The problem is not nearly as great as some people say."

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