As Walmart moves to phase out the familiar blue-clothed “greeters” in some 1,000 nationwide stores, disabled workers who fill many of those jobs say they’re being mistreated by a chain that styles themselves as community-minded and inclusive. Last week, Walmart told greeters across the country that their positions in favor of an expanded, more physically demanding “customer host” role would be eliminated on April 26. They will need to be able to lift packages of 25 pounds (11 kilograms), climb ladders and stand for long periods to qualify. That came with cerebral palsy, spina bifida and other physical disabilities as a heavy blow to greeters. A job at Walmart provided them with the necessary income, served as a source of pride and offered a community connection. Now Walmart, the largest private employer in America, faces a backlash as customers rally around some of the most visible and beloved employees in the chain.
Walmart says it is striving to place greeters in other jobs at the company, but workers with disabilities are scared.
Donny Fagnano, 56, who has been an employee at Walmart for more than 21 years, said he cried when a manager at the store in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, called him into the office last week and told him his job was going away.
“I like working,” he said. “It’s better than sitting at home.”
Fagnano, who has spina bifida, said he was offered a severance compensation package. He hopes to stay on at Walmart and clean bathrooms as a replacement for his old job.
Theresa Sours, an 81-year-old greeter with heart failure, said she desperately needs her Walmart job to help pay for her expensive medicine and mortgage. Sours, of Stuart, Florida, who’s worked for the chain for more than 18 years, said her manager told her they had no other employment opportunities suited to her ability.
“I never thought they would do this. I feel like I’m thrown to the wolves,” Sours said. Her sister-in-law, Cecilia Appleby, was even more direct: “They’ve done her wrong. They’ve done her absolutely wrong. They just don’t like the handicapped.”
For decades, Walmart greeters have been around at the entrance to the store, allowing the retail giant to place a friendly face at the front of their stores. Walmart then started replacing greeters with hosts in 2016, with responsibilities that include not only welcoming customers but helping with returns, checking receipts to deter shoplifters and keeping the store front clean. Walmart and other chains, as they compete with Amazon, have redefined roles in stores. The effect of the greeter phase-out on disabled and elderly employees— who traditionally gravitated to the role they were well-suited to do — largely escaped public notice until Walmart launched a second round of cuts last week.
As word spread, outraged customers began to call in to Walmart to complain – first on social media and then on local and national news outlets. The petitions were signed by tens of thousands of people. Facebook groups emerged with names like “Team Adam” and “Save Lesley.” A second grade class in California wrote letters on behalf of Adam Catlin to Walmart’s CEO, a disabled greeter’s mother had wrote an impassioned Facebook post about his plight. Walmart said they offered Catlin another job. Hundreds of customers in Galena, Illinois are planning to attend Ashley Powell’s “appreciation parade” on her last day of work as a greeter.
“I love it, and I think I’ve touched a lot of people,” said Powell, 34, who has an intellectual disability. She once rescued a 3-year-old boy who’d wandered into the parking lot and led him back to his parents at checkout.
In Vancouver, Washington, John Combs, 42, who has cerebral palsy, was heartbroken and then angered by his impending job loss. It had taken his family five years to find him a job he perform well, and he loved the work, coming up with nicknames for all his co-workers.
“What am I going to do, just sit here on my butt all day in this house? That’s all I’m going to do?” Combs asked his sister and guardian, Rachel Wasser. “I do my job. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Wasser urged the retail giant to “give these people a fair shake. … If you want to make your actions match your words, do it. Don’t be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
With the U.S. unemployment rate for disabled people more than double that for workers without disabilities, Walmart has long been seen as a destination for people like Combs. Advocacy groups worry the company is backsliding.
“It’s the messaging that concerns me,” said Gabrielle Sedor, chief operations officer at ANCOR, a trade group representing service providers. “Given that Walmart is such an international leader in the retail space, I’m concerned this decision might suggest to some people that the bottom line of the company is more important to the company than inclusive communities. We don’t think those two are mutually exclusive.”