Opinion | Why Walmart’s Reputation of ‘Employer of Choice for Disabled Persons’ Is at Risk

By: | May 2, 2019

Nina Luckman is a business journalist based in New Orleans, focusing primarily on the workers' compensation industry. Her credentials include a B.A. and M.A. from Tulane University, both in the study of English Literature. Over the last several years, Nina has served as Editor of Louisiana Comp Blog, a news site she started in 2014 under the auspices of a group self-insurance fund. Louisiana Comp Blog won the WorkersCompensation.com Best Blogs award in 2016, 2017, and 2018. She can be reached at [email protected]

The announcement that Walmart “People Greeters,” a position with a large number of disabled persons relative to the general Walmart workforce, will face transition caused a significant social media backlash. The greeters will be replaced by a position that includes some of the same duties but will be called “Customer Host.”

The additional duties, according to Walmart U.S. CEO and president Greg Foran, include “handling customer refunds, scanning receipts and checking shopping carts.”

The transition, which has already affected about 1,000 stores, opens Walmart up to a larger criticism of corporate culture — a lack of willingness to accommodate and integrate disabled workers into the workforce in a meaningful way.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2018, published in February of this year, the unemployment rate for persons with a disability is 8% versus 3.7% for persons without a disability.

Even more revealing, the employment-population ratio (the proportion of the population that is employed) was 19.1% among those with a disability.

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By contrast, the employment-population ratio for those without a disability was 65.9%. Even though a primary reason for this vast gap in employment-population ratio is the fact that half of disabled persons are 65 years or older, inherent in this disparity is also a call-to-action for employers.

Later, Walmart walked back its decision to phase out the greeters in another statement from Foran, in which he said that he would be extending Walmart’s standard 60-day transition period for employees to apply as Customer Hosts or for other positions in their stores.

“In terms of the associates with disabilities who are transitioning out of the People Greeter position, we recognize these people face a unique situation,” Foran said.

“For that reason, we are looking into each one on an individual basis with the goal of offering appropriate accommodations that will enable these associates to continue in other roles with their store.”

He added that Walmart has a 100% score in the Disability Equality Index for the last three years.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2018, published in February of this year, the unemployment rate for persons with a disability is 8%, versus 3.7% for persons without a disability.

However, documents as well as interviews with Walmart workers, obtained and assessed by NPR, show that the Customer Host position requires the ability to lift 25 pounds and stand for long periods — a significant departure from the People Greeter position that will likely have the effect of jettisoning disabled workers.

Amy Scherer, a staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network, said she’s concerned that “Walmart seems to be missing how to accommodate instead of displacing.”

Scherer noted Walmart could use the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) to work with the greeters.

“They’re assuming across the board that the job needs to be changed,” she said.

As for Walmart’s attempt to quiet criticism by extending its typical 60-day application period for transitioning employees, Scherer was unimpressed.

“Just having the ability to apply for another job makes no difference if none of the available jobs are within your capabilities,” she said.

While Walmart’s People Greeter controversy continues to play out, its reputation as an employer of choice for disabled persons is at risk. And in the midst of it all, the employer community has a decision to make — pay lip service to a culture of inclusion or make a substantial effort to accommodate.

After all, the appreciation of diversity brings prestige and value to a company that lifting 25 pounds never has. &

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]