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Walmart Shift on Greeters Leads to Lawsuit

4 min read

Walmart’s initiative to change its “people greeter” jobs to ones that require more physical labor brought complaints and a lawsuit against the Bentonville retailer over allegations that it violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Walmart’s decision also highlights weaknesses in the ADA, said Stacy Hickox, associate professor at Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources & Labor. She has also taught courses in employment law, civil rights and disability law at MSU’s law school.

Under the ADA, which makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate based on a person’s disability, an employer has to make “a reasonable accommodation” for a worker with a disability claim, she said. But the accommodation doesn’t have to be “an unreasonable demand” on the employer, Hickox said.

“There’s a lot of deference given to employers to say what’s reasonable and what’s not and what causes them an undue hardship or what doesn’t,” she said.

She said if Walmart wants to reshape the greeter position into one that includes more physical duties, the company can do that. “So a court isn’t going to step in and say, ‘No Walmart, you can’t require your greeters to lift [heavy items] because we think that’s a bad idea,’” Hickox said. “The court’s just not going to do that.”

In 2016, Walmart began reconfiguring its people greeter position to “customer host,” a role that includes requiring employees to handle customer refunds and check shopping carts.

Manase L. Yokwe of Utah said in a federal lawsuit that he requested an accommodation after Walmart said in July 2016 that the greeter position was transitioning to customer host. An injury prevented Yokwe from standing or walking for more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time. He said that while his request was pending, Walmart terminated him, according to the lawsuit. He alleged his treatment was a violation of the ADA.

Walmart denied Yokwe’s allegations in its court filings and the case is pending.

“Walmart does not condone or tolerate discrimination of any kind,” a company spokesman told Arkansas Business in an email. “Mr. Yowke was given time to apply for a new position, just like other greeters at the store, yet he never did. We take claims of discrimination seriously and plan to continue to defend the company in Court.”

Cheryl Bates-Harris, a senior disability advocacy specialist at the National Disability Rights Network in Washington, said that she knows of three or four ADA complaints involving Walmart’s initiative that were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the first step before a lawsuit is filed alleging ADA violations.

Bates-Harris said the change from greeter to host had a “very profound impact on people with disabilities and the aged, who typically held that position.”

Earlier this year, several news outlets reported on the greeter position change, including NPR, which in February published a story called “Walmart Is Eliminating Greeters. Workers With Disabilities Feel Targeted.”

Greg Foran, the president and CEO of Walmart U.S., responded in a Feb. 28 memo to Walmart stores that said employees with disabilities who were affected by the changes would be given more time to find another job within the company.

That transition to customer hosts in the 1,000 Walmart stores was completed in April. “In those stores, greeters with a physical disability who said they wanted to continue working at Walmart, were offered a job,” a Walmart spokesman said in an email response to questions from Arkansas Business. Foran said in his memo that Walmart has “a long-standing history of being an employer of choice for people with disabilities.”

First, Analyze

Hickox said for an employer to make reasonable accommodations, the employer should first analyze the job duties to determine which tasks are essential.

For example, a reporter’s job includes writing, talking on the phone and doing research.

“Now occasionally you might be asked to lift a box of copy paper, … but it’s not really essential to the nature of your job,” Hickox said. “So a reasonable accommodation might be to say if the copier needs new paper then somebody else could put the paper in.”

Or the employer’s environment could change to make a reasonable accommodation such as providing better lighting or software that converts text to voice.

The employer also might consider transferring the worker with a disability to another job within the company.

Hickox said she would like the “duty to accommodate” to be defined more clearly under the ADA. “I think it would be beneficial to employers, too, to know more specifically what they are expected to do,” she said.

The EEOC has given guidance on the ADA, but that guidance is not the law, she said.

She also would like for Congress to add some of the EEOC’s guidance language to the ADA, which would also give direction to employers and employees. “Then employees wouldn’t be asking for things that weren’t reasonable either,” she said.

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