Most U.S. workers don't use up all their sick days.




Merrill Lynch Co. seems bent on making sure its workers don't.




A new corporate policy has employees at the largest U.S. stock brokerage possibly facing punitive action &

including the loss of pay &

if they take more than three sick days without valid excuses. Termination could result after eight sick days.




Company officials said the new policy is meant to crack down on some workers abusing sick days to play hooky, taking the days on sunny summer Fridays to go to the Hamptons.




Benefits experts, however, said the brokerage is simply becoming part of the norm. The average company offering the benefit provides 8.1 sick days a year. But workers on average only take 5.2, according to a survey by Mercer Human Resources Consulting.




Until this month, Merrill Lynch employees got as many as 40 paid sick days a year, an unusually generous policy.




Under "attendance guidelines" issued May 4, managers are directed to talk with employees who have charged four days to sick time about their performance and the "future consequences" of taking additional sick days. Those with more than seven illness-related absences may get a written warning that failure to improve their attendance "will result in immediate termination."




Merrill Lynch spokeswoman Selena Morris acknowledged that the language "sounds very dramatic," but called the guidelines "a minor policy adjustment."




"We're trying to reduce the number of people taking every Friday off in July," she said.




The company's previous sick-pay policy allowed employees "10 occurrences" of up to four days each. Morris also stressed that Merrill employees still get three weeks of vacation and up to 13 weeks of paid leave for parents of newborns, among other benefits.




Merrill's new policy is not that unusual, said Mark Mehler, co-founder of CareerXroads, a New Jersey recruiting and consulting firm. "It's a story about how companies are trying to control sick days," he said.




The issue is gaining prominence as Congress considers legislation that would mandate seven paid sick days for most employees. An estimated 57 million U.S. workers &

nearly half of all full-time workers &

don't have the benefit at all.




Many employers who do offer it are cutting back the benefit or lumping sick and vacation days into paid time off banks, in part to control unscheduled absences.




The bill's co-sponsor, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., called Merrill Lynch's new policy "exactly the wrong message" to send workers. It "exacerbates the strain" for workers trying to balance family and work, she said in a statement released Wednesday.




Efforts to reach employees in various Merrill Lynch offices were unsuccessful as company officials directed them not to talk to reporters.