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Stay Home if You Have Swine Flu, Unless You Work at Wal-Mart

During the summer, when swine flu was not yet a widespread reality in the United States, giant retailer Wal-Mart made the news for being in talks with the government about possibly distributing the swine flu vaccine through its extensive network of stores.

But now the swine flu has Wal-Mart under scrutiny for a very different reason: Accusations that the retailer is leaving employees infected with swine flu little choice but to come to work, due to its punitive sick leave policies.

Citing a report by the National Labor Committee, the Institute for Southern Studies’ argues on its blog Facing South that Wal-Mart is essentially contributing to the spread of swine flu by making it financially prohibitive for employees to miss work when they fall ill.

Employees of the Arkansas-based retail giant — even its food handlers — feel they have no choice but to work when they’re sick. That’s because the company gives workers demerits and deducts pay for staying home when they’re sick or caring for sick children.

It gets worse:

The situation is particularly difficult for Wal-Mart workers who are single parents. The NLC reports on an instance in which an employee got a call from her four-year-old’s preschool telling her to pick up the child, who had a fever of 103 degrees F. Despite the fact that the employee had already worked for four hours that day, she got a demerit point for leaving and lost her wages for the rest of the day.

The report says: “Parents have no choice but to load their children up with Motrin and Dimetap to mask their symptoms so they can go to school.”

Which, of course, leads to a vicious circle of other children at school becoming sick, and spreading it in their families. Not to mention the misery of a sick child facing a full day of school.

What’s particularly interesting is that Wal-Mart includes on its Website some information about swine flu, including frequently asked questions. Here’s the answer to “What should I do if I get sick?”

Stay away from others as much as possible to keep from making others sick. Staying at home means that you should not leave your home except to seek medical care. This means avoiding normal activities, including work, school, travel, shopping, social events and public gatherings.

Unless you work at Wal-Mart. Then, you’d better make it in for your shift if you don’t want your pay docked or possibly lose your job. From Facing South:

Wal-Mart has a demerit system that punishes workers who cannot come to work due to illness. Employees who miss a day due to sickness receive a one-point demerit and lose eight hours of wages.

Employees with more than three absences a six-month period face discipline, and a fifth absence — even for a sick day — will result in what the company calls “active coaching” by management.

A sixth absence leads to what Wal-Mart calls “Decision Day,” when a worker can be either terminated or put on a year-long trial period during which time he or she can be fired for any infraction and cannot be promoted.

The swine flu sometimes can cause people to miss an entire week or more of work. At Wal-Mart, that could get you fired.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s what the Center for Disease Control was hoping for this flu season, as it tries to contain a life-threatening virus. Wal-Mart’s labor policies have long been contentious, but this one could actually create a public safety issue. If these allegations are true, it may be time for public health officials to step in somehow, perhaps with fines for the retailer for keeping flu-stricken employees on the job. And let’s not just pick on Wal-Mart; it’s very possible that other low-wage retailers and business are doing the same thing. Maybe the best option in the absence of any government action is for customers to walk away. Is a bargain really worth it if employees are forced to work while sick with the flu — and potentially help to spread an unusually dangerous virus?

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