Support Pours In For Walmart Workers With Disabilities After Company Announcement

Feb 26, 2019
Originally published on February 27, 2019 8:17 am

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Support is pouring in from around the country for workers with disabilities who are worried about losing their jobs as greeters for Walmart. The company is removing greeters from stores around the country. Walmart says about a thousand stores have already eliminated the position and another thousand are doing it now. Last night, NPR's Alina Selyukh was the first to report on this national move by Walmart. She's been gathering reaction today and is in the studio with us now.

Hi, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: What has been the response so far?

SELYUKH: Well, I think there's been this groundswell of realization that this is happening nationwide. The families and their friends have been forming support groups online. More and more stories are popping up on local news. And I've also counted at least 17 petitions launched online in recent days asking Walmart to save these jobs. People are describing their personal connections to their local greeters, the smile that makes their day. They're demanding Walmart keep the greeters.

As of today, I've now spoken to seven greeters with disabilities directly or through their families. They're from seven different states. One of them is Simon Cantrell, who is 21 and works as a greeter in South Carolina.

SIMON CANTRELL: I know people are very proud of me and how hard I work. But I just don't understand why they just want to get rid of greeters.

SHAPIRO: OK. He uses the phrase get rid of greeters. Is that exactly what Walmart is doing here?

SELYUKH: Right. There is a lot of confusion and dismay about that. Well, essentially, Walmart has been replacing greeters with this new job called customer host. So it pays a bit more. It has extended responsibilities. The idea is to have a new type of greeter who is also a security guard and can also wrangle carts or help shoppers a bit more. And this job has new requirements that can be impossible to do if you're in a wheelchair, like lifting 25 pounds or standing for long periods of time. In one case, a worker with a learning disability was told that he likely didn't qualify for the customer host job because of his handwriting in reports. And several workers said that they were told that they don't qualify for other jobs in the store because they all require the ability to climb a ladder.

A few greeters with disabilities have also mentioned that their hours have been cut back recently and severely. I spoke to one former greeter, Elizabeth de la Cruz from Texas, who says she's been on an extended leave of absence now for a year-and-a-half.

ELIZABETH DE LA CRUZ: It was not right what Walmart did to me. You know, the manager agreed to hiring me. And then to just let me go because I have a disability, that wasn't right.

SELYUKH: De la Cruz has filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on which Walmart has not commented to NPR.

SHAPIRO: OK. So that was a year-and-a-half ago. How long...

SELYUKH: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...Has this been happening?

SELYUKH: In 2016 was when Walmart originally outlined this plan to replace the traditional people greeter with the customer host. We're now in the big second wave that was announced to workers last week. And some people have pointed out Walmart is in serious competition against Amazon for dominance. It has been in a bit of a makeover. And Walmart has said that these changes are part of its effort to better help shoppers.

And this is a big deal because Walmart is the largest private employer in the U.S. It employs a lot of people with disabilities. So with these changes, they have been starting to see some legal action. In addition to the EEOC claim from Elizabeth de la Cruz we heard earlier, there is another one in Michigan, one filed in Wisconsin. Another former greeter is also suing Walmart in Utah. And Walmart has not commented to NPR on any of those cases.

SHAPIRO: Walmart has not commented to NPR on those cases. But what, generally, is Walmart saying about this issue as it plays out around the country?

SELYUKH: Yes. They have said that since the change has been announced, they've had people with physical disabilities find other roles - or at least other job offers - in stores. But the big update is about the deadline. Originally, Walmart said on April 26 was the date when customer hosts would replace the greeters. The greeters would go away in many stores; customer hosts would come in. Well, now Walmart says greeters with physical disabilities will get more time to sort out their jobs.

And to be clear, the Americans with Disabilities Act does not stop companies from changing job descriptions as they need. But the law does require companies to provide, quote, "reasonable accommodations" as long as the worker can do the essential functions of the job. And the workers I've spoken to are hopeful but also anxious to see if Walmart will actually find accommodations for them.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Alina Selyukh. Thank you very much.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.