As if the low wages Walmart’s associates make weren’t bad enough, it turns out the mega-retailer is also failing to abide by federal sick-leave law. According to labor advocates, the company’s strict “point system” for regulating workers’ schedules is penalizing people for getting sick or caring for their family’s health—even when the law entitles them to leave time.
A new report reveals that workers subjected to Walmart’s harsh scheduling rules fear their supervisors’ cold calculations are discounting the value of the health of loved ones, as they are consistently denied time off to care for family in times of need. Workers have reported being arbitrarily denied their right to take time off for family health needs, and even punished for missing work for a medical emergency. According to a voluntary online survey of some 1,000 workers, nearly eight in 10 said they had been “punished” by management for an emergency medical absence.
Under Walmart’s disciplinary system, workers rack up points for missed work time under a “three strikes you’re out” policy, according to the advocacy group that led the survey, A Better Balance (ABB). When they end up getting “pointed out” for the time off that they must take to deal with family health crises, workers end up having to choose between risking their jobs or risking their family’s health—often while struggling to earn enough to cover basic health-care needs.
ABB says Walmart is ignoring the Clinton-era Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees long-term workers at medium-sized firms up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off for self-care or family care. Though it offers no supplementary wages, it’s the bare-minimum protection against arbitrary firing for a medical condition. Walmart’s cheap-and-fast business model, however, uses disciplinary points to enforce a de facto “zero tolerance” policy on workers’ health and caregiving needs, and, according to ABB’s research, consistently violates the law’s requirement that employers proactively inform workers of their rights under the FMLA. Most workers surveyed said they had not even been informed about their right to unpaid time off, despite explaining their medical situations to management.
Workers’ lives can be profoundly impacted when they’re unaware of their right to leave time. One respondent, “Chris” in Pennsylvania (names were changed to protect privacy), recounted that after his daughter was born with a congenital brain defect, his parenting needs got him “pointed” under Walmart’s policies. “It causes a lot of issues for babies. When I have been absent to help with an issue my daughter is having, I get a point,” he said. “Walmart hasn’t let me know about the FMLA.” Ashana in Tennessee recalled racking up points when her son was hospitalized with pneumonia, “even after telling management why I was out. They give points no matter what.”