Some H-E-B employees are expressing frustration over the company tightening its attendance policy, which they say has the effect of making calling out sick or with short notice more costly.

The San Antonio-based grocery store chain, Texas’ largest private employer, has long used a point system to track attendance. If an employee is late or misses a shift, they are given points. And if an employee gets too many points, they could lose their job.

These kind of “no-fault” attendance policies are common across retail and other industries because of their simplicity, said Robert Jones, the department chair of Texas Tech University’s Department of Hospitality and Retail Management.

“Prior to COVID, I would have said it’s something that’s increasing in use,” he said. But the pandemic and the Great Resignation have increased competition for workers across the board, putting a spotlight on personnel policies that might push workers out the door, he added.

“It’s going to come under scrutiny by every retailer,” Jones said.

H-E-B recently tightened its system, and changes have been rolling out across its stores for months. Houston stores saw the new changes around seven months ago, while San Antonio stores are just now seeing them.

The company explained that the most recent changes are part of a push starting in 2020 to digitize attendance scheduling. H-E-B said that all such changes come from worker feedback, and the internal app that’s used to track attendance actually leads to greater flexibility and transparency.

Previously, employees could call out sick a maximum of eight times in a year-long period. Now they can be categorized as “pending HR approval to be separated from employment” after calling out three times over a six-month period, according to a company document viewed by the San Antonio Report.

Under the tightened policy, workers said they can suddenly find themselves on the edge of termination after just two unexpected emergencies — making staying home when sick a difficult decision.

During in-person, phone and online interviews on Reddit with five employees about the policy, workers described incidences like providing doctor’s notes after a short-notice absence or complications from a chronic illness, but still receiving points under the system. The system and its changes leave little room for unexpected emergencies, the five employees said.

One Houston-based worker explained it this way after missing a shift: “I couldn’t afford to get sick again.”

After the publication of this article, H-E-B said that the current implementation of the policy doesn’t involve HR and “each situation is carefully evaluated based on the circumstances.”

H-E-B said feedback to the changes so far has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

One additional worker the Report spoke to said the system was previously too lenient, allowing some of their coworkers to abuse call-outs and leave teams short-staffed. Another worker also welcomed the system’s way for managers to actually remove points if a worker gets “commended” for agreeing to work time they weren’t scheduled for, such as coming in early or working on their day off — which didn’t exist before.

H-E-B workers are also protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to take intermittent leave for chronic illness and other medical-related reasons, which requires filing paperwork and working for an employer for more than a year.

The grocery giant employs more than 100,000 people across hundreds of stores in Texas and Mexico, according to the company’s website, and an estimated 20,000 work in San Antonio alone, according to Greater:SATX.

The grocery chain was ranked by Forbes as the state’s largest private company by headcount and revenue, as well as the nation’s fifth-largest private company by revenue, with an estimated $32.8 billion in fiscal year 2021.

Broadly, “no fault” attendance policies have come under some scrutiny by lawmakers and labor regulators for potentially infringing on workers’ rights. The Department of Labor in 2018 issued an opinion letter outlining appropriate and inappropriate uses of points-based attendance policies.

In any case, power is shifting toward employees, and employers are feeling the pressure to examine which policies best serve their workforce.

“It’s a whole lot trickier keeping your workforce under current conditions,” Jones said. “We might see a lot of changes in retail.”

H-E-B is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

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Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.