'My Whole Life Is On Hold': As Walmart Eliminates Greeters, A Dream In Limbo
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By today, a thousand Walmart stores were to eliminate their greeters - those workers who welcome shoppers. NPR broke that news back in February. It put many greeters, particularly those with disabilities, in limbo, anxious to learn whether they could stay with Walmart. NPR's Alina Selyukh spent time recently with one Florida greeter.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: His name is Justin Kelley, and that weekend in February, he made the biggest financial commitment of his 33-year-old life - he paid a friend to start custom-building an airboat.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE TURNING OVER)
SELYUKH: If you can't picture it, airboats are very flat with a giant propeller in the back and usually an airplane engine. They're big in central Florida. And Kelley has always lived around these lakes. Daredevils like him will run these boats on both water and dry land, in the marshes - going fishing, hunting, just cruising.
JUSTIN KELLEY: We can go see water buffalo, axis deer, turkey, hog, gator - just pure God's country.
SELYUKH: Of all the sounds in the world, Kelley says this engine's roar is one that calms him down. But it's not just that - onshore, he uses a walker to get around. Kelley has cerebral palsy. But on a boat...
KELLEY: It, to me, is the one place that, when I'm in that seat, you don't see that walker. You don't see the chair. To me, that's my level playing ground; it's my freedom.
SELYUKH: His dreamt half his life of building his own boat, made just right, just for him. But then two days after putting down money for the boat...
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Walmart.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Walmart.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Walmart is saying goodbye to its greeters.
SELYUKH: Kelley was among the greeters at about 1,000 Walmart stores who learned their job would be eliminated in late April. That gave them 60 days to get reassigned or take severance and leave.
KELLEY: Everything I've worked for is, like, standstill right now because my whole life's on hold.
SELYUKH: His life is on hold because, when I meet him, it's Day 49, and his job is still in limbo. Many other greeters have reassigned to new front-door jobs, but they're now more focused on security and helping shoppers so they have new requirements, like lifting 25 pounds or climbing ladders. Kelley uses a wheelchair at work, and he does not qualify. Walmart - which we should note is an NPR sponsor - told me that the majority of greeters who, quote, "expressed interest" in other roles would get reassigned at the end of 60 days - just some may be slower than others.
KELLEY: There's lakes back in there, lakes over there (laughter).
SELYUKH: When I meet Kelley on his porch, he actually strikes me as a pretty happy-go-lucky kind of guy, except lately he has not been sleeping well, spending more time in his room applying and hustling for new work - so far, no takers. Someone wants to buy his boat, which would float him for a while, but it took him five years to save for it.
KELLEY: So do I start selling my stuff that I just bought? Do I take my dream right now and just go buy a for-sale sign? What do I do?
SELYUKH: Friends reassure him, but he says their names aren't on the bills on his counter, and his life has a few more unique expenses. Because he spends so much time outdoors and out on the town, he goes through walkers three times faster than he's prescribed new ones.
KELLEY: Luckily for me, most of my friends are welders. So we'll fix it, or my mom and dad - that'll be my Christmas present, is a walker.
SELYUKH: Another expense is getting to the Walmart, almost nine miles away. Kelley doesn't live near public transportation, so on a short shift, he might spend almost half the day's pay just traveling to work. It's usually a $12 Uber ride or friends with cars.
KELLEY: Let's do this.
SELYUKH: Today, his longtime friend Karen (ph) arrives more than an hour before Kelley's shift. He's already waiting for her in work boots, that trademark Walmart yellow vest and blue hat in the sandy driveway.
KAREN: I got to go backwards because I can't go frontwards.
SELYUKH: After Kelley climbs into the passenger seat, she folds his wheelchair into the trunk. Kelley says, growing up, he often felt that people thought his parents were mean for how they pushed him to be self-sufficient, like learning to climb into a tall truck. His dad would say...
KELLEY: Well, he knows the rules - if he can't do it himself, he can't go.
SELYUKH: Kelley says now he thanks them for that all the time. So for a guy this independent-minded, you can imagine how important a job is.
KELLEY: It's not, like, my life goal to live off a disability check. I don't want housing. I don't want free medical stuff. I want to be able say I paid for all that myself.
SELYUKH: Finding and sometimes keeping jobs has not been easy for Kelley. He spent a year looking before he got hired at Walmart. He's been there nine years.
KELLEY: For me to say that I work for a company - I got a 401(k), I got a chance to get insurance - that meant a lot to me, and I take a lot of pride in that.
SELYUKH: Today Kelley works the garden entry at Walmart, greeting and checking receipts.
RONALD SMITH: He's a good friend. I love him to death. He's a good guy.
SELYUKH: Ronald Smith stops by to get medicine for his wife.
SMITH: I hollered at him; I always do - going in and coming out.
SELYUKH: At Kelley's Supercenter, every other shopper seems to know him. And Kelley says he also has a great manager who's been very understanding, fighting to keep him. Every day he's in, Kelley asks his bosses if they've heard about his job from corporate. On most days, they have not; but on Day 49 of his wait, they do have news. And it's good - he's smiling when I see him.
Congratulations are in order.
KELLEY: Thank you. Thank you.
SELYUKH: Walmart is reassigning Kelley; he'll now be helping shoppers in the self-checkout area. He signed his offer on the spot.
KELLEY: It's a big weight lifted off my shoulders.
SELYUKH: Kelley is excited for stability, though, also, already worrying about lining up rides for a new schedule. But he's grateful, and more importantly, his boat is no longer for sale. Alina Selyukh, NPR News, Lake Wales, Fla.
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