Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=159599
Story Retrieval Date: 5/21/2013 2:34:23 AM CST
Activists are protesting that the world’s largest employer isn’t giving its employees the benefits they’re due. But the Fortune 500 list-topper – raking in $379 billion a year – says it ain’t so.
Several Wal-Mart employees and disgruntled members of the community congregated in front of Chicago’s only Wal-Mart, in Austin, Wednesday to protest the company’s sick-day policy.
“Wal-Mart would rather have their employees come in even though they are very sick,” said Moises Zavala, “just for the sake of stretching their profits.”
Zavala, the director of organizing for the Local 881 United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, led the rally.
“Workers are being punished because they are trying to get well,” he said. “They are forced to go in sick, exposing other workers and the public to whatever viruses they have.”
Full-time associates at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. can earn two personal days and approximately six sick days per year, said Wal-Mart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez.
“The first day off would not be a paid day,” said Lopez. “It’s up to the associate to use a personal day if they need it off.”
Wal-Mart does not penalize employees for taking time off to get better, said Lopez. “If the associate or a family member is suffering from H1N1 or flu-like symptoms,” he said, “it wouldn’t affect their employment status.”
But protesters say the company’s policies aren’t the problem. It’s the follow-through.
“The policy is not respected,” Zavala said. “People are being penalized the first time they call out. Workers get demerits that can lead to termination. When employees are reviewed, Wal-Mart uses those against workers to prevent them from getting raises or promotions.”
Unpaid sick days are controversial, and public-health experts recognize the dilemma.
“If employees have to be at the workplace to conduct their job, it could be problematic,” said Douglas Bruce, a senior associate in the Master of Public Health program at DePaul University.
“But it’s a cost-benefit perspective,” he said. “If employees are spreading sickness, it will impact the company’s health-care cost. It’s good practice for people to stay home and not spread infections to their co-workers.”
Public-health officials try to make the message clear to wavering companies. The Chicago Department of Public Health offered counseling services to employers during the H1N1 pandemic last fall.
“‘Shelter at home’ is the buzz phrase,” said Tim Hadac, director of public information at the department. “Encouraging an employee to come in and work when they’re sick is bad for the bottom line.”
Wal-Mart employees say that managers push for documentation from doctors, forcing workers to come to work for fear of termination. But that practice is reasonable, experts argue.
“It’s reasonable for employers to ask for a document so people don’t take advantage of the system,” Hadac said. “But there must be a cushion to give people a break to stay home – sometimes a day of bed rest will suffice.”
Refusing to pay for a first sick day off is a popular practice among U.S. businesses, some say.
“A serious or genuine illness is deferred to a second day off,” said Sander Vanderwerf, who leads the absence-management practice at Chicago’s human resources consulting firm Hewitt Associates, LLC. “It suggests an employee is using the time for a meaningful illness, although defining real sickness is somewhat arbitrary.”
An unpaid first day off doesn’t sit so well with some.
“The goal of these policies is to keep poorer performers from taking mental health days and sick days when they aren't really unhealthy, said Alliance Consulting Group’s Sally Wright in an e-mail. “But the concept is ridiculous. It is punitive to the 90 percent of the workforce who appropriately use the current system.”
Wal-Mart’s debatable demerit system isn’t so far off, either.
“Attendance plans tend to be point-driven on a rolling 12-month basis,” Vanderwerf said. “It’s estimated with the intention of managing a work force and intended to support planning around taking time off when it comes to illness, which is usually unplanned.”
“If Wal-Mart's goal is to get their employees to think that they are a profit-driven behemoth that cares nothing for their people,” Wright said, “this is the way to do it.”
But Wal-Mart sees it differently.
“Wal-Mart wants our associates to be well so they can be productive and serve customers,” Lopez said.