By Lauren Aratani
Source: The Guardian

More than 7,500 Covid-19 infections and 133 deaths could have been prevented if Walmart offered employees two weeks of paid sick leave, according to a report released on Wednesday.

The public health not-for-profit Human Impact Partners calculated the impact that better paid sick leave could have had for employees of Walmart, the largest employer in the US, using findings from the University of Wisconsin that universal sick leave could lead to a nearly 6% reduction in coronavirus infections and deaths for workers in Wisconsin.

Researchers used the US national Covid-19 case rate to determine that at least 125,000 Walmart employees, of which the company says there are nearly 1.6m in the US, contracted Covid-19 between February 2020 and February 2021. The company has not publicly released data detailing how many employees have had the virus.

Cynthia Murray, an employee of a Walmart in Laurel, Maryland, and a leader with United for Respect, a worker advocacy group, said that the company’s sick leave system was confusing and had left workers worried that calling in sick would lead to losing their jobs.

Walmart has a point attendance system that docks employees with points for things like showing up late to or missing a scheduled shift, Murray said. An employee will be fired if they get five points during a six-month period.

In lieu of time off dedicated to illness, the superstore chain offers “protected PTO” (paid time off) hours that can be used to take time off without accruing any points against their attendance. Employees can accrue up to 48 hours – about six days of work – of protected PTO each year, earning an hour for every 30 hours worked, according to Walmart policy.

“It really makes it hard, so you have a lot of workers who come to work sick because they don’t want to be fired,” Murray said, adding that workers also “don’t really have any kind of money that they can take [an unpaid] day off”.

During the pandemic, Walmart instituted an emergency leave policy that allows employees to take two weeks of paid leave for mandated quarantines or if they test positive for Covid-19. Employees who request time off due to concerns over Covid-19 can take unpaid leave without attendance consequences, according to company policy.

A Walmart spokesman disputed the reports findings saying they were based on projections and said the company had introduced a number of policies to help employees during the crisis.

“Communities across the country have suffered from coronavirus cases, and with stores, clubs and other facilities located within 10m of 90% of the US population, Walmart is not immune to the impact of Covid-19. While it may be impossible to track the source of anyone’s infection, what we are seeing is that the health of our associates tends to track the health of the country as a whole,” he said.

While Human Impact Partners’ report singled out the big-box retailer, access to paid sick leave is an issue across the country. With no federal paid sick leave policy, rules vary according to state laws and individual employers. The lowest-wage workers in the country are less likely to have paid sick leave than those with higher income, with about half of workers in the lowest wage quartile of private industry workers having paid sick leave compared with 92% of those in the highest wage quartile.

Sukhdip Purewal Boparai, a senior research associate with Human Impact Partners who co-authored the report, said that Walmart changing its sick time policy could help set an industry standard.

“Paid sick time is a really effective and powerful public health tool,” Boparai said. “[Walmart is] the largest corporate employer, and they can set a standard for other companies to follow.”

Both the Walmart employee Murray and United for Respect are advocating to Walmart shareholders that the company should institute a pandemic advisory council that could advise the company’s board of directors on workforce issues, like paid sick leave.

“Being who we work for, the largest billion-dollar company in the world, they can take care of their workers,” Murray said. “And they should.”