Demise of Walmart ‘greeters’ reveals shortcomings in the Americans with Disabilities Act

Walmart’s decision to eliminate the “greeter” position in all its stores is a case study of why the Americans with Disabilities Act is falling short of its original vision.

Back in 2015, the retailer began experimenting with a new position it called “hosts” to replace the employee who traditionally greeted customers entering a store. The new position, however, required the ability to lift 25 pounds, clean up spills and stand for long periods of time – duties that would be difficult or impossible for many greeters with a disability.

After a public backlash, Walmart said it would give greeters with disabilities extra support and time to find a new job in the company.

The change took final effect late last month. Former greeters who weren’t given a new position – which Walmart earlier had estimated at as many as 20% – were to be terminated with severance. Walmart didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Some disabled greeters who have already lost their jobs over the past couple years as part of the shift have filed claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that they were not offered a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA.

While the outcome of their cases remains unclear, my research has shown that the reality is that the ADA – and how courts interpret it – offers companies like Walmart several ways to legally avoid accommodating disabled workers, a group with persistently high unemployment rates.

What employers may not realize is the mistake they’re making when they do this.

Ramps are almost everywhere thanks to the ADA. nongningstudio/Shutterstock.com

‘Reasonable acommodations’

Perhaps the most visible signs of the ADA, passed in 1990, are the ramps and handicap parking spaces that have proliferated next to curbs and offices throughout the country.

The ADA, however, was intended to do a lot more to provide people with physical and mental limitations job opportunities. A key element involved an employer’s responsibility to offer “reasonable accommodations” to enable a person with a disability to carry out his or her duties, such as by modifying a work schedule, providing technological aids or transferring the worker to another position that he or she can perform.

The one caveat was if “doing so would pose an undue hardship” for the employer, meaning it would require significant difficulty or expense. What that meant in practice was left up to the courts to decide.

Employer discretion

In its early years, the ADA only moderately increased the availability of accommodations in the workplace. And when workers sued, more than 90% of cases were decided in favor of employers.

That’s because courts have generally deferred to employers in determining how to comply with the law.

Courts relied heavily on formal job descriptions and the employer’s judgment when interpreting essential job duties, limiting the rights of people with disabilities to obtain accommodations.