Walmart revamps employee sick-leave policy to improve attendance

Walmart is making sweeping changes to its employment policies this month, granting paid sick leave to hourly workers in the U.S., and, at the same time, possibly making it easier to fire those who miss too many shifts.

Effective Feb. 2, the revamp standardized a patchwork of local and regional policies crafted to comply with the growing number of states and municipalities requiring businesses to offer paid sick leave. Now all of Walmart’s store and warehouse workers will be able to earn as many as 48 hours of what it calls “Protected Paid Time Off,” which is classified separately from their regular vacation time and can be used for any reason.

It’s the latest step in Walmart’s attempt to burnish its reputation as an employer. Last year, the company raised wages, expanded parental-leave policies and relaxed its dress code—moves that, Walmart says, have lowered employee turnover rates in the U.S. by more than 10 percentage points, though it won’t be more specific.

“We’re thrilled that the company has stepped up and appears to be making major improvements to its policy,” said Dina Bakst, co-president of A Better Balance and, historically, a harsh critic of Walmart’s employment practices. “At the same time, we urge Walmart to reconsider aspects of the policy that may be even more harsh on workers.”

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Employees restock shelves of school supplies at a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. location in Burbank, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017. Wal-Mart Stores is scheduled to release earnings figures on August 17. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

WaWalmart’s new sick-leave benefit is the carrot in its policy overhaul. The retailer has also cut by nearly half the number of attendance infractions allowed over a six-month period before a worker is fired. In addition, quarterly bonus payments, which were previously based only on a store’s performance, are now partially tied to attendance. A worker who bails on a couple of shifts, for example, could see his or her bonus cut by as much as half. Those with no violations, meanwhile, can receive 25% more. (Workers who use their protected leave won’t get penalized for absences, no matter the reason.)

Drew Holler, a vice president of associate experience at Walmart, said paid sick leave was a “complicated issue” due to the various state and local regulations, and the new policy will “simplify the approach.” He said attendance over the most recent holiday period was better than during the same period a year ago.

Walmart’s workers started Feb. 2 with a clean slate, attendance-wise. Even so, at least one Walmart worker wasn’t happy about the change in bonus policy. “Our attendance has nothing to do with it,” said Sherry Koska, 68, who works at a Walmart in Rialto, California and is involved with OUR Walmart, a labor activist group. Koska, though, said she had zero absence points, so she would qualify for the additional bonus.

She's not alone: About 300,000 U.S. hourly workers have perfect attendance, Walmart said. That’s less than a third of its 1.1 million-strong hourly workforce.

“There's also a subset that have good, but not spotless attendance, and a subset on the other end of the spectrum,” said Holler. “Our goal is to address both ends.”

By state law, Koska already gets paid sick time, along with Walmart workers in Illinois, Philadelphia and other jurisdictions that require it. Other big chains are in the same boat; overall, a little less than half of retailers surveyed by consultant firm Mercer said hourly employees get paid sick days on top of regular paid time off. At Starbucks, baristas accrue paid sick leave from the date they’re hired, at the same rate Walmart plans to offer—one hour for every 30 hours worked. At that rate, a full-time employee working 40 hours a week would be able to cover one eight-hour shift after six weeks.

From Walmart’s perspective, the new policies are designed to combat absenteeism both by making it easier for workers to take the time they need and discouraging no-shows. According to Mercer, measuring and reducing the impact of absences is among the top workforce priorities for companies with 5,000 or more employees.

“What’s really happening is they are concerned about people abusing paid time off,” said Jennie Romich, an associate professor at the University of Washington whose research focuses on low-income workers.

Whether it reduces absenteeism or not depends on how it’s implemented, according to workplace experts. “It’s really about what happens in the actual stores,” said Anna Haley, an associate professor at Rutgers University. “The proof is in that pudding.”

Bloomberg News