For decades, the people in blue vests at the front doors of Walmarts were known for their warm welcomes to its stores.
Those onetime greeters have been replaced by “customer hosts,” and their responsibilities have grown.
The change drew criticism last week amid news reports that it seemed to disproportionately affect Walmart’s disabled workforce. In interviews with more than a dozen current and former disabled greeters, many said they were initially left in a lurch and afraid they’d lose their jobs.
The story of 30-year-old Walmart greeter Adam Catlin, reported by PennLive.com, went viral after he was told his job would end April 26. Catlin — who has cerebral palsy, uses a walker and is legally blind — had been a greeter at his store in Pennsylvania for 10 years. In the host role, he would be expected to stand for long periods of time, write reports and carry up to 25 pounds.
Catlin told The Washington Post, as well as other outlets, including NPR, that the physical requirements of the host job would be impossible, and that he was unsure what other jobs at the store he could do.
On Thursday, Walmart told employees that it would hold individual meetings with greeters, with the goal of finding them another job. Typically, employees are given 60 days to find other openings in the company. But Greg Foran, president and chief executive of the company’s U.S. stores, said greeters with disabilities would get an extended window until a solution was found.
“Let me be clear,” Foran wrote, “If any associate in this unique situation wants to continue working at Walmart, we should make every effort to make that happen.”
On Friday, Catlin accepted a job at his store as a self-checkout host.
In 2016, Walmart began replacing traditional greeters with “customer hosts.” The new job involves welcoming shoppers, as well as checking receipts, helping with returns and keeping a physical presence at the door to deter criminal activity. In stores where greeters were being replaced by hosts, greeters could apply for the role or another job at the store.
In a pilot program rolling out the host role, Walmart said more than 80 percent of former greeters were able to find jobs. Those who chose not to stay were offered severance. (Walmart would not disclose how many employees have transitioned to customer hosts since 2016.)
Craig Goodwin, 39, had been a Walmart greeter for 19 years when he was told that his job was ending April 26. In an interview with The Post, Goodwin said he was told that he could apply for the host position or apply to work in the fitting room. Goodwin was shocked. He loved being a Walmart employee and proudly described being invited to the annual stockholders’ meeting. Goodwin has cerebral palsy and uses a power wheelchair full time. He is also a quadriplegic.
The fitting room position, according to a company description from last month, requires climbing ladders, carrying weight up to 10 pounds, “bending, twisting, pulling and stooping,” and using fine motor skills.
"I thought, after all the good things, you have the nerve to do this to me?” Goodwin told The Post earlier this week.
On Friday, Goodwin accepted a job greeting shoppers and working in the self-checkout area at his store outside Chicago. He said he’ll be able to do almost all the requirements of the job, but other employees in the same area can help out with tasks such as replacing receipt tape or punching numbers into a keypad.
Goodwin said he was glad to rejoin his “family.”
“I feel relieved,” Goodwin said. “I’m glad that they reconsidered this, and I hope they’ll make better decisions when they have to deal with this in the future.”
Disability rights lawyers said that, from a legal standpoint, Walmart has the right to change an employee’s job description at any time. The company is under a legal obligation to make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees, so long as those don’t pose an undue burden, usually some high expense, for Walmart. Even with accommodations, disabled employees still have to be able to perform the essential function of a job. For example, legal experts raised questions of whether standing for long periods is essential to the host job.
Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, said he will be watching whether Walmart follows through on its promise to make accommodations for greeters with disabilities. And he raised broader concerns about the stigma that people with disabilities can’t perform as competitively at work.
But even in the absence of a pressing legal issue, Walmart’s pledge to deal with each case directly registered with some as a belated public-relations fix. They pointed to the fact that disabled greeters have been affected by these job changes for years, yet Walmart is only publicly addressing the repercussions now.
Anthony Johndrow, a corporate reputation adviser, said that Walmart’s hiring of disabled workers could have been a story the retailer celebrated. But the company is on the defensive and has scrambled to correct “a PR issue they created.”
“Once you’re explaining yourself, you’re losing,” Johndrow said. “The headlines look bad. ... It feels like them just trying to spin their way out of this.”