Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, is coming under fire during the H1N1 flu season for its sick-leave policy, which awards demerits for sick days and forces workers to use a floating holiday or vacation day for the first day out (or forfeit their pay for the day).

After the first day, the company does offer paid sick leave, but it’s that first day that forces employees to choose whether to stay home or come to work sick–or leave sick children at home to fend for themselves.

Demerits, or points, are accrued for absences, however. Four absences in a six-month period lead to disciplinary action that can result in termination if more points are accrued, according to sources. A clean record for six consecutive months erases all points from an employee’s record.

"I do believe Wal-Mart is creating a public health threat by encouraging workers to come to work [sick]," said Robert Field, professor of health management and policy at the Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia. "It is in a position, as a retailer, to create particular exposures for the public…. It’s such a ubiquitous store, and it particularly caters to families and kids who are the ones most likely to spread the disease."

"Our attendance policy is written in a way that is flexible to meet the needs of our associates, but, by the same token, it allows us to take care of our customers and run our business," a company spokesperson explained, adding that "no one will lose their job" for getting the H1N1 flu.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress for an emergency measure to require employers to offer five days of sick leave for any employee suffering from the H1N1 virus or other infectious disease, but even that likely wouldn’t affect Wal-Mart’s policy since it does, in essence, guarantee sick leave, albeit with some onerous strings attached.

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