NEW YORK, NY — Walk into a typical Walmart store anywhere in the country and you’ll likely be welcomed by a friendly face. Walmart greeters have been a staple of the retail giant for years, and they’ve often provided employment opportunities for people with developmental or physical disabilities as well as older adults.
But Walmart, the country’s largest private employer, is eliminating the position at more than 1,000 stores nationwide on or around April 25. Greeters are being replaced by so-called “customer hosts,” National Public Radio reported Monday. The new positions have additional responsibilities, including cleaning, helping out with returns and ensuring entrances are clean and safe, Walmart has said.
The transition to hosts, which includes the removal of some disabled employees, is part of the company’s goal to “improve the experience for our customers.”
Employee duties must periodically be adjusted, company spokesman Justin Rushing told Patch in an emailed statement. He declined to say how many greeters would be let go, but Rushing acknowledged associates with disabilities would be especially impacted. They will be given an extended transition period while the company figures out what to do with them.
“We’ve recently shared our plans to change the responsibilities of the people greeter role in some stores and that involves associates with disabilities in some cases,” Walmart said in a statement to Patch. “We recognize that our associates with physical disabilities face a unique situation. With that in mind, we will be extending the current 60-day greeter transition period for associates with disabilities while we explore the circumstances and potential accommodations, for each individual, that can be made within each store. This allows these associates to continue their employment at the store as valued members of the team while we seek an acceptable, customized solution for all of those involved.”
Greeters with disabilities in Florida, Pennsylvania, Washington, Alabama and Maryland told NPR they’re worried they will lose their jobs in April. Others have taken to social media to express outrage and disappointment. That includes Holly Catlin of Pennsylvania, who wrote in a Facebook post last week that she was “extremely saddened” to learn that her relative Adam Catlin, a greeter who has a disability, learned his job was changing.
“After April, he will be required to be able to lift and carry 25lbs, write reports and a lot of other duties that exceed his abilities with his cerebral palsy, using a walker, and low vision,” she wrote. “Therefore, if he cannot perform this new list of required tasks, he will no longer have a job there. He has the ‘option’ to reapply for this ‘newly detailed’ position, (which is now called a host) but, he must be able to perform those tasks, or he can find another job within the store that he can do. Ummm…like what?”
Catlin said she’s disappointed not only with how the news was delivered, but with the fact that the shift happened in the first place.
“I know corporate decisions are corporate decisions, if that’s where this originated from, but, does anyone ever make any decisions anymore by putting any heart or care into it? I seriously wonder this,” she said.
Her post has received more than 4,800 reactions, over 3,900 comments and more than 9,800 shares. Her plea outraged commenters as well, many of whom questioned whether the change is even legal under the American With Disabilities Act. The civil rights law outlaws discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, including in the workforce. One section is specifically designed to help people with disabilities gain access to the same job opportunities as everyone else. And employers have to give reasonable accommodations to these workers.
“A reasonable accommodation is any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable an applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions,” according to the ADA National Network National Network, which provides information, guidance and training on how to implement the act.
The job change stems from a 2015 pilot program in which many Walmart stores moved greeters from the “Action Alley” (where shoppers push carts past pallets filled with products) back to the front door. In others, the “customer host” position was implemented, in which associates were tasked with, among other things, checking receipts.
In stores with the new host position, greeters were allowed to apply for the new role as well as other positions in the store or at other locations nearby. More than 80 percent of the affected associates were able to find new positions in the pilot program, Walmart said. That included “many promotions.”
“For those who didn’t choose to stay, we offered severance pay, which we continue to offer as we move this program nationwide,” the company said.
Melissa Pierre-Louis, a partner at Outten & Golden who has practiced law involving the ADA for about a decade, told Patch on Tuesday that the law, amended in 2009, significantly expanded the protections available to disabled applicants and workers. The amendments significantly changed how the definition of disability is interpreted so that it could be applied to more people. Under the amended ADA, employers must provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities, and companies can’t discriminate or retaliate against people based on a disability.
But these cases can be difficult to prove for workers because an employer must deliberately terminate a worker based on a disability, not in spite of it.
“The employer can go back and say ‘Look, this has nothing to do with the employee’s disability. We’re not firing people because of their disability, we’re firing them because we no longer need this position,'” said Pierre-Louis. Workers can then try to prove that the termination was pretext for discrimination. This could include showing it doesn’t make sense to eliminate that particular position, or showing that the new position is substantially similar to the one that was just eliminated. It could also mean proving the disabled worker wasn’t given the opportunity to apply for — or compete for — the new position even if the person was qualified.
The ADA notably doesn’t say that disabled workers must be able to do their jobs without help. Rather, if there is a reasonable accommodation that would allow the person to perform their duties of the position, an employer must provide one.
Of course, affected workers may have another possible route, Pierre-Louis added. They could make what’s called a “disparate impact” claim, which essentially means that a company is violating the law if its policy or practice disproportionately affects members of a protected group. The law applies regardless of whether the action was deliberately made because of a disability.
Pierre-Louis said an example of this would be how employers historically sought ways to discriminate against African-American employees. Companies wouldn’t simply come out and say “We can’t hire African-Americans to work at this company,” so they’d instead require workers to have a high school diploma, knowing that at that time many African-Americans were unable to obtain one.
“Even though the actual statement ‘We’re not hiring African-Americans’ was not there, they had a policy which disproportionately impacted African-Americans to ensure that the workplace would remain predominately Caucasian,” she said.
Walmart greeters with disabilities who are losing their jobs could try to make a similar disparate impact argument. But Pierre-Louis stressed that a key question will be whether the greeters would be able to perform the “essential functions of the host job with or without a reasonable accommodation.”
“If I am an individual who can’t lift over 20 pounds, but I can perform the essential functions of the position,” as part of the amended disability act, the employer may have an obligation to engage in something called the “interactive process,” she said.
This means the employer would have to sit down with the worker and try to find a reasonable accommodation that would allow him to perform the job. This may includes things like a part-time work arrangement, installing a wheelchair ramp, or schedule accommodations.
“Whatever it is, there should be some sort of interactive process to see whether or not there’s some sort of reasonable accommodation that would allow these individuals to do their jobs,” she said.