After hearing on the news in March that the coronavirus was causing an increase in traffic and demand, I decided to work at a grocery shop. I wanted to help my community by performing necessary tasks. Walmart was the first to call me back and offer me a job as a cashier at $11 per hour, pre-tax. (Before Walmart, I was unemployed.) I was in high school at the time, so I participated in my community through Key Club and used speech and debate to hone my advocacy skills.)
At Walmart, it's common for someone to need a break, and a management will recruit someone to take their place. There isn't much of a choice, owing to our store's chronic understaffing. When I first became a health advocate, this was the case. I'd learnt about the job the day before, when I was given the task of counting individuals as they entered and exited the store.
I didn't get any instruction, other than being told to let any unmasked people into the store, even if they didn't have one or didn't want to put one on. (At the time, my store didn't provide disposable masks to clients who didn't have one.) Although I am aware that there is a training video, I was not instructed to watch it. Walmart has written policies as well, but I was not shown them. My training, if you can call it that, consisted of a fast verbal instruction from my boss.
You never knew how a customer would respond. The majority of the customers wore masks, but you had to be ready for a tense argument at any time. One out of every ten customers, I'd estimate, refused to wear one, frequently shouting expletives and citing health concerns or conspiracy theories as justifications. “I will not wear that piece of nonsense,” “Covid-19 is a bunch of propaganda,” “This is a hoax,” and “Get away from me,” were some of the things I heard. “Thank you for shopping at walmartone wire,” I was told, “you may enter the store,” and then call a manager on the walkie-talkie. Despite being alerted, I rarely received a response, and I don't believe a management ever challenged an uncovered client.
For standing in the sun and heat for hours while exposing myself to uncovered clients who I was expected to engage with, I did not earn more remuneration. Summer in Fayetteville is hot and humid, with temperatures reaching the 90s and humidity levels above 40% on a regular basis, and health ambassadors are forced to stand outside in the sun. Although Walmart supplies cold water, standing outside for an entire shift is taxing.
My managers also failed to see the danger I was in. That is, however, nothing new. Walmart's indifference to unpleasant, aggressive customers puts associates at danger all of the time. Several customers have threatened to assault me for inconveniencing them just because I needed to count them, or because I asked them to enter through the doors labeled "enter," or to pause and wait for the group ahead of them.
I never felt comfortable in my capacity as a health spokesperson. I'm simply grateful that no one was physically aggressive toward me – I was terrified that someone would assault me or threaten me with a weapon every shift. You never know what you're going to get, and it's occurred before. Nonetheless, many of my colleague’s health ambassadors and associates felt that we should be permitted to refuse anti-masker’s access.
My last day at Walmart was July 31st, after 126 days of employment. I organized an action that day with the help of United for Respect to draw attention to Walmart's disdain for worker and customer health. Walmart has ignored us and been months behind on basic CDC-recommended workplace measures, despite calls from associates around the country for extra help during this pandemic, including sufficient PPE and hazard pay at 1.5 times ordinary wage.
If I were the CEO of Walmart, I would not assign another perilous task to key workers who are already putting their lives on the line, especially without investments in meaningful, long-term assistance, such as social distancing and additional paid time off. More than 900 instances of associates contracting Covid-19 in Walmart shops around the country have been collected by United for Respect, but I'm surprised that more sites haven't been the cause of outbreaks.
I wish Walmart had a stricter policy in place to protect staff from aggressive customers, as well as consumers and the general public from unidentified Walmart customers. Walmart's policy is now weak, spineless, and dangerous for anyone who enters a store.