At Wal-Mart (WMT) these days, snowy weather is no longer an excuse for lateness. It had better be a natural disaster like a hurricane or blizzard. And being 10 minutes or more tardy for work three times will earn you a demerit. Too many of those could get you fired.

It's all part of a revised attendance policy implemented earlier this fall that makes Wal-Mart Stores Inc. hourly workers more accountable for excessive unexcused absences and formalizes such penalties.

The new rules already are drawing fire from critics who claim they are the latest attempt by the nation's largest private employer to weed out unhealthy and costly long-term workers as it seeks to cut labor costs.

John Simley, spokesman for Wal-Mart, calls the charges by labor-backed groups "invalid" and said the changes are an enhancement of the company's prior policy.

"We are formalizing and enforcing the policy to ensure greater consistency and to minimize subjectivity," he said.

"It is designed to produce a better work environment and a better shopping environment. The result is better communication and a better shopping experience," he said.

Documents furnished to The Associated Press by union-backed WakeUpWalmart.com show that employees must call an 800 number to report all absences and tardiness by an hour before the scheduled start time. They also have to call their manager with the confirmation code they received when calling the hot line number. In the past, employees got permission directly from their store managers.

"After a year of adopting antifamily policy after antifamily policy, Wal-Mart adds further insult to injury by adopting a new restrictive attendance policy that treats hard-working associates like children while penalizing them if, God forbid, they face a child or friend with a medical emergency," said Chris Kofinis, a spokesman at WakeUpWalmart.com.

The group is set to hold its first-ever national conference call with Wal-Mart employees and civil rights leaders Thursday to discuss the latest move as well as other recent labor changes.

In September, Wal-Mart said it will stop offering traditional low-deductible health plans for new hires next year in favor of low-premium plans with higher deductibles. Wal-Mart has maintained that the move will put more health care money and choices in the hands of its more than 1.3 million U.S. workers, but union-backed Wal-Mart critics claim it is pushing the rising costs of health care onto its workers.

Wal-Mart has also received heat from critics for implementing caps on its seven hourly pay grades. Employees who are at or above the cap will not have their pay cut, but they can only get a raise by moving to a higher-paid category.

Wal-Mart isn't the only major corporation grappling with how to cut down on no-shows; unscheduled absenteeism has climbed to its highest level since 1999, according to results released last week of an annual nationwide survey of 326 human resource executives in U.S. companies and organizations.

The survey, conducted for CCH Inc. by the Harris Interactive consulting firm, put the U.S. absenteeism rate at 2.5 percent in 2006, up from 2.3 percent a year ago and the highest since seven years ago when it was 2.7 percent. The survey found that personal illness makes up for only 35 percent of unscheduled absences, with the rest due to family issues, personal needs, stress and an entitlement mentality.

But Pamela Wolf, a workplace analyst at CCH, believes that Wal-Mart's absentee control program seems to be bucking the trend among major corporations to embrace work-life programs that are "designed to recruit and retain workers."

"This doesn't seem to be introducing flexibility to its employees," Wolf said, after being briefed on Wal-Mart's new policy.

Dan Butler, vice president of operations at the National Retail Federation, defended stricter attendance policies like Wal-Mart's, saying "if you don't have controls in place to hold employees accountable, you can't guarantee a certain level of service."

But some Wal-Mart employees, whose names were furnished by WakeUpWal-Mart.com, said in interviews that the new policy is too rigid.

The new policy reduces the number of unapproved absences allowed to three from the previous four during a rolling six-month period. Employees who have more than three unapproved absences will be disciplined; seven will result in termination, according to the documents. Simley said under the old policy, employees were terminated after six unapproved absences.

The new policy appears more rigid when it comes to authorized absences. In the past, general bad weather would suffice as an authorized excuse; now it has to be a natural disaster like a hurricane or blizzard. Wal-Mart is now defining tardiness more rigidly as beginning work 10 minutes or more after the scheduled start time, which results in an incomplete shift. Three incomplete shifts add up to one unauthorized absence.

Simley argued that the new policy is more flexible. Before, employees could have been marked down as tardy for being a just few minutes late for work, he said.

Under the revised policy, Wal-Mart is encouraging employees who are sick for more than three days to apply for unpaid leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act.

"They always said family comes first; now, are they coming last?" asked Cynthia Murray,a Hyattsville, Md., resident, who works in the fitting room of a Wal-Mart store in Laurel, Md.

One of the changes that Murray is upset about is that Wal-Mart now counts leaving work early to pick up a sick child as a strike against you. Simley argued that Wal-Mart always counted that as an unauthorized absence.

Mike Turner, who resigned three weeks ago as assistant manager of a Wal-Mart store in Crosby, Tex., said he was briefed about the changes by his bosses earlier this fall. He said that under the old policy, managers would approve excuses on a case-by-case basis, but the 800 number eliminates such "human interaction."

"I believe in being fair," he said, noting he personally approved plenty of situations that made a worker late like flooding or a car breaking down. "What can you tell a good associate that you are going to discipline because of a system that goes against human interaction?" he asked.