swine flu maskWith swine flu in full swing, Wal-Mart's punitive sick leave policy is discouraging employees from calling in sick, lest they earn enough demerits to be fired, according to a report by the National Labor Committee.

Wal-Mart employees who miss one or more days due to sickness or other reasons, including caring for a sick child, earn a demerit point and lose eight hours of wages. Employees with more than three absences in a six-month period will be disciplined, and four demerits in six months leads to warnings that can lead to dismissal.

A fifth absence, even if it's a sick day, will result in "active coaching" by management, according to the NLC report, and a sixth occurrence will activate a "Decision Day" when an associate can either be fired or put on a year-long trial period where they can be fired for any infraction and promotions are not allowed.

Wal-Mart employees who call in sick don't get a sick day on their first day off, although they can use a vacation or personal day, meaning they won't be paid for that first sick day, according to a New York Times story. The policy is meant to keep workers who aren't actually sick from taking a day off.

The policy is leading to Wal-Mart employees coming in to work sick all of the time, according to the NLC.

The irony there is thick because this summer Wal-Mart offered to help the U.S. Centers for Disease Control give H1N1 virus inoculations at its stores.

On its Web site's frequently asked questions about swine flu, Wal-Mart says to follow the CDC recommendations and stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities.

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

You'll notice that staying away from work was included in that list.

Wal-Mart told the New York Times that it has policies to make it easy for its workers to stay home sick, and that it insists that workers with H1N1 stay home.

But with 39% of private sector workers not having paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it's a reality that millions of Americans have to face any morning when they wake up sick: Stay home without pay and hopefully get better, or go to work, get paid and remain sick?

It's a tough call when you have bills to pay, but businesses that promote staying home if you're sick shouldn't hang the possibility of being fired over a worker's head for having to make that difficult decision.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area who can be reached at www.AaronCrowe.net

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