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'My Whole Life Is On Hold': As Walmart Eliminates Greeters, A Dream In Limbo

In February, Justin Kelley was among the workers at about 1,000 Walmarts who learned that their jobs as people greeters would be eliminated. Like Kelley, many of them were workers with disabilities who found themselves in limbo. [Alina Selyukh / NPR]
In February, Justin Kelley was among the workers at about 1,000 Walmarts who learned that their jobs as people greeters would be eliminated. Like Kelley, many of them were workers with disabilities who found themselves in limbo.

One weekend in February, Justin Kelley, 33, made the biggest financial commitment of his life: He paid a friend to start custom-building an airboat. He had dreamed of owning one since an early age.

"That's my level playing ground. It's my freedom," Kelley says. Onshore, he uses a walker to get around and a wheelchair at work, because he has cerebral palsy. But on an airboat on a Florida lake? "To me it's the one place that, when I'm in that seat, you don't see that walker. You don't see the chair. ... It's my escape. It's my happy place."

But two days after putting down money for the boat, Kelley found out his job was in jeopardy. He was one of the greeters at about 1,000 Walmart stores who were told their positions would be eliminated in late April. That gave them about 60 days to get reassigned or take severance and leave.

"My whole life is on hold," Kelley says, sitting on the wooden steps to his house in Lake Wales, Fla. "Everything I've worked for is at a standstill."

Since 2016, Walmart has been replacing greeters with "hosts," more focused on security and assisting shoppers. But for current greeters like Kelley to qualify for the new front-door jobs, they now must meet new criteria. That includes, for example, lifting 25 pounds or climbing a ladder.

One, two, three — Kelley counts more than a half-dozen surgery scars on his legs — hamstring, ankle, "they shattered my shin to try to straighten that foot," he says, matter-of-factly. He can lift and climb, if he has to, in a private setting, adjusting his body. But doing this regularly and safely for work? Kelley doesn't qualify.

According to Walmart, the majority of greeters who "expressed interest in another role" will transition to new positions within those 60 days. "In some cases, we were able to identify roles very early in the process," spokesman Kory Lundberg says, "but for others the 60-day transition has helped people look at all of their options to help them make the best decision for them." (Note: Walmart is one of NPR's financial sponsors.)

As Kelley sits on his porch, it's Day 49 of his wait for a call from HR. He says he has a great manager, who is fighting to find him a new position. But Kelley also has someone who wants to buy his boat.

"So do I start selling my stuff that I just bought?" Kelley says. Selling the boat would float him for a while. But he spent five years saving up for it. "Do I take my dream right now and just go buy for-sale signs? What do I do?"

Kelley's predicament will sound familiar to other greeters with disabilities. In recent weeks, a dozen workers and their families shared similar accounts — of uncertainty, hope and the anxiety of waiting for a corporate decision. Kelley doesn't know that as he speaks, his fate has actually already been decided. He will know it in a matter of hours.

A day in the life

Airboating is big in Central Florida, where citrus groves are webbed with lakes and swamps. These boats are flat, with a giant propeller in the back and usually an airplane engine. They can run on shallow water and even patches of dry land in the marshes.

Kelley has been enamored with airboats since he was a teenager, going fishing, hunting, just cruising. Of all the sounds in the world, the boat's roar is one that calms him down. Around here, you could ride for hours, even days, and never hit the same spot twice, Kelley says. "We can go see water buffalo, axis deer, turkey, hog, gator. Just pure God's country."

Growing up, Kelley says, he often felt that people thought his parents were mean for how they pushed him to be self-sufficient. Like if you can't climb into a truck yourself, you can't go on a trip. Now, he says, he thanks them for that all the time.

In fact, he spends so much time outdoors and on the town, he says he goes through walkers "like they're going out of style" — three times faster than he is prescribed new ones.

"Luckily for me, most of my friends are welders, so we'll fix it, rig it to work," he says. "Or my mom and dad, that'll be my Christmas present ... a walker."

Today, he is climbing into the passenger seat of a sedan in his sandy driveway. A friend is driving him to work — Kelley's Walmart is almost 9 miles away, and Kelley doesn't live near public transportation. So he stitches together rides from friends and $12 Ubers, getting ready hours in advance in case a ride falls through and the closest Uber is 20 minutes away.

"It's not like my life goal [is] to live off a disability check. I don't want housing; I don't want free medical stuff. I want to be able to say I paid for all that myself," Kelley says. His dream is classic: stable work, a house, wife and kids, a couple of acres with a barn for his boat.

After some false starts at other jobs after high school, Kelley spent a year looking for work before getting hired at Walmart. He has been there nine years.

"For me to say that I work for a company [where] I got a 401(k), I got a chance to get insurance, that meant a lot to me," Kelley says. "I take a lot of pride in that."

Finally, news

At the store where he works, every other shopper seems to know Kelley by name. On the way in, people stop to chat about fishing, weekend plans, kids and of course boats. On the way out, they have their receipts ready for Kelley to check. Shoppers keep greeting him even after he clocks out and waits outside for an Uber home.

"I love him to death; he's a good guy," says Ronald Smith, who came by to get medicine for his wife. "Even if you came there with an attitude, you start off with a good vibe right then — that's my friend, I'm going to have a good time shopping."

Every day he's in, Kelley asks his bosses if they have heard about his job from corporate. On most days, they haven't. But on Day 49 of his wait, they do have news. And it's good.

Walmart is reassigning Kelley. Like many other greeters with disabilities, Kelley will now help shoppers in the self-checkout area.

Lundberg, the Walmart spokesman, says, that overall, "greeters have accepted jobs in nearly 50 different roles in stores, from the new customer host position to cake decorator." He says the purpose of the 60-day process was to give workers and stores time to review all options and needed accommodations and find the best fit "in an effort to better serve the customer."

Kelley signed his offer on the spot.

"He came in last night, he was so happy," says Haley Seagraves, whose family shares a house with Kelley. Her husband and Kelley became best friends after meeting through Walmart. "[Kelley] kept smiling, and I said, 'Why are you so happy?' And he was like, 'Because I love this job!' "

Kelley is excited for stability. Though he is also already worrying about lining up rides for a new schedule. But he is grateful.

"Big weight lifted off my shoulders," he says, and laughs. "There ain't no boat for sale no more, that's for sure."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.