Moms Turn Tables on Wal-Mart, Issue Demerits to Company for Punishing Workers Who Take Paid Sick Day

MomsRising Launches Campaign to Urge Wal-Mart to Reverse Practice and Safeguard Public Health This year, people who shop at Wal-Mart may bring home something they cannot return. Recent news reports by the The New York Times, Washington Post and ABC News have revealed that the megastore colossus has a practice of issuing what are commonly called demerits, or “occurrences” to employees who get sick and take sick days. Accruing enough occurrences can lead to dismissal. As a result, many Wal-Mart employees feel compelled to go to work sick and are unwittingly exposing their co-workers and customers to the flu and other contagious diseases. In response to media coverage of this practice, Wal-Mart said it would issue a memo altering the policy for employees who had to take time off because of being sick with the H1N1 flu. In an ABC News report, a Wal-Mart memo was quoted saying, “we must be clear that no one will lose their job if they get H1N1.” “Altering the demerit, or ‘occurrence’ system only for H1N1 is an incomplete and inadequate response to a very real health problem and a public health risk,” says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, Co-Founder and Executive Director of MomsRising.org. “This is clearly just an effort to avoid bad publicity. If Wal-Mart is truly concerned about employee and customer health, then the company should immediately end its practice of punishing employees who take sick days. Wal-Mart is not alone – many companies have similar practices which risk employee and public health by making it very difficult for employees to use their earned benefits. And nearly half of the private sector workforce is in even worse shape; they aren't allowed to earn paid sick days at all.” MomsRising, the online and on-the-ground grassroots organization with more than a million members, is launching a campaign urging Wal-Mart to stop giving employees demerits for taking sick days, regardless of the health reason. In partnership with the National Labor Committee (NLC) and dozens of partner organizations including Change.org, Families USA, Labor Project for Working Families, National Partnership for Women & Families, United Steel Workers Women of Steel, United Students Against Sweatshops, Wake Up Wal-Mart, 9to5 the National Association of Working Women, Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, New Hampshire Women's Lobby & Alliance and New York Union Child Care Coalition. (A full list of partners is available here.) MomsRising is asking people to give Wal-Mart their own “demerit badges,” and to sign a petition urging the company to change its practice at http://www.demeritwalmart.com. To date, more than 40,000 moms and others have signed the petition and generated demerit badges, which MomsRising will deliver to Wal-Mart executives at their headquarters in Arkansas. “Wal-Mart’s practice of providing earned paid sick days and then giving employees demerits for using them is perplexing and fundamentally unfair,” said Rowe-Finkbeiner. “If taking earned paid sick days can result in losing your job, then the sick days policy isn’t meaningful. We’re particularly concerned that Wal-Mart is willing to risk the health of its employees and its customers with this practice. It is shocking that a company as concerned about profitability as Wal-Mart would risk the health of its workforce by encouraging sick, contagious employees to show up at work. Studies show that presenteeism – coming to work sick – costs companies about $250 per employee each year.” The National Labor Committee, which first publicized Wal-Mart’s practice of treating employees unfairly for taking sick days, has recently collected stories from several Wal-Mart employees, among them: One employee told the NLC that, “absolutely everyone comes in sick…a while ago a CSM [customer service manager] came in so sick she was vomiting on the bathroom floor. She couldn’t afford not to come in.” She said another associate came to work with tonsillitis. The woman’s throat was swollen and she had a fever of 104. Her doctor told her that she would be very contagious for the next 24 hours after taking her prescription and should stay home. When she returned to work and tried to show her doctor’s note to her supervisor, the supervisor told her, “You can keep that. We don’t need it.” The sick woman received a demerit and lost eight hours’ wages. Another employee said that in the deli section, “plenty of girls come in coughing their brains out, but can’t go home because of points.” Only “if you are coughing too loudly that they will switch you to another department.” In 2009, she worked in the deli section while she was sick and eventually developed pneumonia, which required hospitalization. “You can’t stay home,” she said, “and God forbid if you have to leave early.” She received a demerit, lost eight hours wages and was required to take a leave of absence for being hospitalized with pneumonia. Asked about the change in policy for H1N1, a third employee said, “no one knows of any change…and everyone continues coming to work, even if they are really sick.” This employee developed the flu in late October and took time off only when she was so tired and sore she could barely move. For staying home for three days with the flu, she received a demerit and lost a day’s wages (despite having accrued sick leave). “Everyone is coming to work sick, some with the flu,” she said. Earlier this month, MomsRising contacted Wal-Mart requesting clarification of the following:

  • Do employees still receive “occurrences” in their file if they take a sick day due to H1N1?
  • Are employees with H1N1 still unable to use a paid sick day on their first day of illness?
  • How does the company determine if an employee has H1N1?
  • Have employees who were fired for H1N1 prior to the November 6th announcement been rehired?
  • While employees may not be fired for H1N1, does the policy remain in place that they could be fired for other health-related absences, such as strep throat or a broken arm?

To date, the organization has received no response.