Justice

What Walmart's Doing To Its Employees Highlights the Problem with 'Time Off' in the US

June 6th 2017

By:
Thor Benson

It's no secret that Walmart doesn't treat employees all that well—many are forced to go on public assistance just to get by—but a new report shows the company might be breaking the law, too.

A Better Balance, a workers' advocacy organization, surveyed over 1,000 former and current Walmart employees and found the company is regularly punishing employees who take time off work for medical reasons, or to take care of family members. Walmart uses a point system to punish employees for missing work—three points means an employee will likely be fired—and employees across the nation reported getting points for taking care of health needs.

walmart

The report indicates Walmart may be violating the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and certain state laws by punishing employees who miss work because of an illness or because they need to take care of a family member. The report's authors claim Walmart managers routinely refused to accept notes from doctors and emergency rooms proving the absence was due to medical issues. 

"We had responses from all over the country, and there were hundreds of people who were repeating these same stories and same patterns of Walmart saying they don't accept doctors' notes," Elizabeth Gedmark, a senior staff attorney at A Better Balance, told ATTN:. She said many of the employees who were punished for absences were supposed to be protected by the FMLA and didn't realize it. The law dictates that employers must inform employees when they qualify for those exemptions.

emergency room

Gedmark said a large number of the people her group spoke said their managers knew about the long-term medical conditions for which they needed time off; from epilepsy to fibromyalgia, many of these employees were punished for, effectively, having serious medical issues. Others needed time off to take care of their sick child or spouse and were punished.

"I have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a lung disease that sometimes makes it hard for me to breathe. There were a few times recently where I needed days off, like when I got a cold aggravated by the COPD. Walmart gave me points for those days off even though they knew about my medical history. I know from experience that they won't take doctors' notes to excuse absences. I was told I was about to be fired for getting too many points, so I quit on my 9-year anniversary of working at Walmart. It was a sad day for me."

—Dee, a former Walmart employee, told ATTN:.

Many people who suffer from mental disorders were also fired or reprimanded, Gedmark said, as were people who have relatives with mental issues. 

"We saw a lot of cases where somebody would say something like, 'I had a child who attempted suicide,' and of course you would want to be with your child in that terrible situation, but they would get points or get fired," Gedmark said.

sick child

"This is an issue that disproportionately affects low-wage workers, women of color, and other vulnerable populations, who might not have a lot of bargaining power," Gedmark added.

The new report highlights a problem even bigger than Walmart, which is that low- and middle-income employees in the U.S. are often not given time to take care of themselves and their families. Over a third of U.S. workers don't get paid sick leave, and many can't afford to take a day off without pay.

The U.S. is also the only developed nation that doesn't provide paid family leave, and around half of available vacation hours in the U.S. go unused every year, largely because employees feel pressured not to take time off. Walmart, then, is but a symptom.

ATTN: reached out to Walmart and did not receive a response before this article was published.