As Walmart moves to phase out its familiar blue-vested "greeters" at some 1,000 stores nationwide, disabled workers who fill many of those jobs say they're being ill-treated by a chain that styles itself as community-minded and inclusive.
Walmart told greeters around the country last week that their positions would be eliminated on April 26 in favor of an expanded, more physically demanding "customer host" role. To qualify, they will need to be able to lift 25-pound packages, climb ladders and stand for long periods.
That came as a heavy blow to greeters with cerebral palsy, spina bifida and other physical disabilities. For them, a job at Walmart has provided needed income, served as a source of pride and offered a connection to the community.
Now Walmart, America's largest private employer, is facing a backlash as customers rally around some of the chain's most highly visible employees.
Walmart says it is striving to place greeters in other jobs at the company, but workers with disabilities are worried.
Donny Fagnano, 56, who has worked at Walmart for more than 21 years, said he cried when a manager at the store in Lewisburg, Pa., called him into the office last week and told him his job was going away.
"I like working," he said. "It's better than sitting at home."
Fagnano, who has spina bifida, said he was offered a severance package. He hopes to stay on at Walmart and clean bathrooms instead.
Walmart greeters have been around for decades, allowing the retail giant to put a friendly face at the front of its stores. Then, in 2016, Walmart began replacing greeters with hosts, adding responsibilities that include helping with returns, checking receipts to deter shoplifters and keeping the front of the store clean. Walmart and other chains have been redefining roles at stores as they compete with Amazon.
The effect of the greeter phase-out on disabled and elderly employees — who have traditionally gravitated toward the role as one they were well-suited to doing — largely escaped public notice until last week, when Walmart launched a second round of cuts.
As word spread, first on social media and then in local and national news outlets, outraged customers began calling Walmart to complain. Tens of thousands of people signed petitions. A second-grade class in California wrote letters to Walmart's CEO on behalf of Adam Catlin, a disabled greeter in Pennsylvania whose mother had written an impassioned Facebook post about his plight. Walmart said it has offered another job to Catlin.
In Vancouver, Wash., John Combs, 42, who has cerebral palsy, was devastated and then angered by his impending job loss. It had taken his family five years to find him a job he could do, and he loved the work, coming up with nicknames for all his co-workers.
"What am I going to do, just sit here on my butt all day in this house? That's all I'm going to do?" Combs asked his sister and guardian, Rachel Wasser. "I do my job. I didn't do anything wrong."
With the U.S. unemployment rate for disabled people more than twice that for workers without disabilities, Walmart has long been seen as a destination for people like Combs. Advocacy groups worry the company is backsliding.
"It's the messaging that concerns me," said Gabrielle Sedor, chief operations officer at ANCOR, a trade group representing service providers. "Given that Walmart is such an international leader in the retail space, I'm concerned this decision might suggest to some people that the bottom line of the company is more important to the company than inclusive communities. We don't think those two are mutually exclusive."