Walmart Penalizing Workers for Medical Absences

In a new report titled “Pointing Out: How Walmart Unlawfully Punishes Workers for Medical Absences,” the organization A Better Balance reveals how Walmart’s absence control program not only treats workers unfairly, but may actually be illegal. A few cases include the following:

  • Ashana* got disciplinary points for taking her son, who had pneumonia, to the hospital. His condition was so severe that he even stopped breathing at one point.
  • Kevin* got disciplinary points for missing work to go to the emergency room for severe asthma.
  • Katie had a miscarriage with serious complications. Walmart penalized her each day she was out and threatened to fire her.

For workers at Walmart, these are not isolated incidents.

The report is based on interviews and surveys with thousands of Walmart employees, in April and May of 2017, and it includes countless heartbreaking stories like those above.

Walmart uses a point system where workers are penalized with a disciplinary “point” for every absence. They also get points for being late to work or leaving a shift early. Once they hit a certain number of points, workers are automatically fired—no questions asked.

So what’s the problem with this system? Walmart routinely gives penalty points to employees who miss work for legitimate medical reasons, including workers with disabilities who are advised by their doctor to stay home from work. Workers who need to care for family members—even seriously ill children—also receive points. Workers call it “pointing out” when they are fired.

Disciplining and penalizing workers for medical absences is not only unethical and unjust: it is also a flagrant violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, in many circumstances, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). These two federal laws, along with dozens of similar state and local laws, protect workers in these very circumstances—some of America’s most vulnerable workers who desperately need to earn a living and are just trying to support their families. The report follows a charge of discrimination that A Better Balance (ABB) filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging Walmart with a nationwide pattern of punishing employees suffering from medical needs and disabilities through its point system.

According to the ABB charge, Walmart has an ongoing practice of refusing to honor doctor’s notes to excuse absences. Workers who bring in documentation from medical professionals verifying that they missed work due to hospitalization or other serious medical circumstances are routinely told that Walmart does not accept notes and that they will still receive a point – it doesn’t matter if they have a note.

These practices can have a devastating impact on workers who need paychecks to support their families. Even if workers escape being fired, they can still suffer consequences from having points on their records—such as denied promotions, raises, and transfer requests. A shocking number of Walmart workers live in poverty and simply cannot afford to point out. Workers’ rights attorneys and advocates also see Walmart’s point system as a public health issue, since employees anxious about receiving points feel they have no choice but to go to work even when it is not medically advisable. They may spread infectious diseases to coworkers and customers, or fail to fully recover from illness or injury.

As America’s largest corporate employer—with one and a half million employees—Walmart often sets the standard for the entire retail industry. With such tremendous resources, Walmart should be a more positive industry leader and fix these discriminatory practices to ensure that no worker is penalized for a lawful medical absence. It’s not just the right thing to do. It’s the law.

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Emery Reddy