The sick-leave policy of the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., is putting the public at risk because workers are not paid the first day they take off for an illness, even if it is a serious contagious disease, according to members of several unions and labor watchdog groups.
The policy of docking pay on the first day of an illness, they said, ignores government recommendations to let H1N1 victims stay home without being penalized.
"Wal-Mart workers are coming to work sick," said Jenya Cassidy, of the Labor Project for Working Families, during a rally Wednesday organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 5, and Wake Up Wal-Mart.
"Everybody gets sick, but not everyone can afford to get well," Cassidy said.
Wal-Mart, which has become the largest grocer in the United States, denies the claim. But the specter of workers potentially spreading the H1N1 virus because they cannot afford to take time off has public health officials worried — especially retail workers who have frequent direct contact with the public.
Policy same with H1N1
The company has made it clear that people should stay home and get well, spokesman Greg Rossiter said. "That's in everyone's best interest," he said.
But they won't be paid for the first day, despite a warning by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that employees who have flu-like symptoms should not come to work until at least 24 hours after their fever has resolved without the use of fever-reducing medicines.
The California Department of Public Health advises employees who develop flu-like symptoms at work to go home immediately and stay home at least seven days after the symptoms began.
According to Wal-Mart's manual, workers immediately begin accruing sick pay once they are hired, but they can't use their sick time until they have been working for Wal-Mart continuously for six months.
Even after they are eligible, they can't receive sick pay on the first day of their leave. Instead they have to use one of two personal days provided annually or vacation time, which they are eligible for after one year of employment and if their supervisors approve the leave. (First-year employees receive a week of vacation, two weeks after the second year of employment.)
Spread across 1.4 million U.S. employees, the sick-day pay policy could represent a savings of tens of millions of dollars for Wal-Mart. But Rossiter said the policy was developed after a lot of thought and allows people to get well or take care of a family member.
And the policy remains unchanged despite concerns about H1N1, Rossiter said. Instead, because swine flu does not typically involve a single day of home rest, the company has made it clear that people should stay home until they or their family members they have to care for are well.
Ineligible for sick leave
The CDC recommended in January that "all sick people should stay home and away from the workplace" during a flu outbreak and that businesses should encourage sick employees to stay home without fear of losing their jobs.
Nationwide, close to three-quarters of workers ineligible for paid sick days said they went to work with a contagious illness, according to a survey done by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. In California, 6 million people — or 40 percent of the workforce — are ineligible for paid sick leave.
"It does not promote healthy workplaces," Assemblywoman Fiona Ma said Wednesday at the rally, where she announced a bill that would extend sick pay to the state's workers. "This is a public safety matter," she said.
Shoppers at the Oakland store said they would think twice about shopping at Wal-Mart if the nation's largest retailer was pressuring sick employees into working. "That would make a whole lot of difference," said Lakesha Woods, a Kaiser Permanente registered nurse. "I like the prices." But, she added, "I think I would shop somewhere else. When you're sick, you're sick."