Walmart endured more than a week's worth of bad publicity before announcing it would make "every effort" to find a role for disabled workers who had been threatened with job loss as the retailer gets rid of greeters at 1,000 stores.
Amid a fierce backlash, Greg Foran, president and CEO of Walmart's U.S. stores, said in a memo to store managers Thursday night that "we are taking some specific steps to support" greeters with disabilities. Several greeters were offered new jobs at their respective stores on Friday and accepted.
Advocates for the disabled said Walmart is making the right move.
"By rethinking their action, Walmart is now opening the door to actually help individuals realize their full employment potential," said Cheryl Bates-Harris, senior disability advocacy specialist at the National Disability Rights Network.
Walmart told greeters around the country last week that their positions were being eliminated in late April in favor of an expanded "customer host" role that involves not only welcoming customers, but also helping with returns, checking receipts to help prevent shoplifting and keeping the front of the store clean. The position requires hosts to be able to lift heavy weights, climb ladders and do other tasks.
People with disabilities who have traditionally filled the greeter job at many stores accused Walmart of acting heartlessly. Outraged customers and others started online petitions, formed Facebook support groups, and called and emailed Walmart corporate offices in Bentonville, Arkansas, to register their displeasure.
"This was a major-league botch," said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consultancy, adding that Walmart should have foreseen the public's reaction.
"Someone finally woke up," Johnson said. "Hopefully they're now woke and they'll fix this thing the right way. ... The good news is it's reversible."
Foran acknowledged the change from greeter to host, and its impact on disabled workers, had "created some conversation." He wrote that Walmart was committed to doing right by these employees, noting that greeters with disabilities would be given longer than the customary 60 days to find other jobs in the company.
"Let me be clear: If any associate in this unique situation wants to continue working at Walmart, we should make every effort to make that happen," said his memo, which Walmart released publicly.
Walmart has already started making job offers to the greeters. At least three longtime greeters — Adam Catlin in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, Jay Melton in Marion, North Carolina, and Mitchell Hartzell in Hazel Green, Florida, all of whom have cerebral palsy — have accepted jobs in self-checkout.
Catlin's mother, Holly Catlin, helped call public attention to her son's plight with an impassioned Facebook post and has since advocated for greeters around the country. After emailing Walmart CEO Doug McMillon every day, Catlin got a call from the corporate office on Thursday, and on Friday morning she and her son met with store management in Selinsgrove.
"I decided I was going to be the squeaky wheel and squeak every day," Catlin said, adding she's encouraged by Walmart's recent moves. "I believe the path forward is going to be good for these people. I think they're really going to make an effort and try to keep these people."
In North Carolina, Melton is "happier than a pig in a mud puddle," said his father, Jim Melton.
Foran, who heads Walmart's U.S. stores, wrote that greeters with disabilities "face a unique situation ... and each case requires a thoughtful solution." He said that Walmart's goal is to offer "appropriate accommodations that will enable these associates to continue in other roles with their store."