PITTSFIELD — Imagine walking into the bustling aisles of the Pittsfield Walmart, amidst the everyday chaos of shopping, a constant – Annie’s smile. For 15 years, Anne-Margaret Connors, a dedicated employee has been a beacon of warmth and familiarity, especially in the children’s clothing department. Seated on the floor, meticulously folding clothes left untidy by hurried shoppers, her presence has been a comforting constant. In a heartwarming twist of time, Annie might have folded clothes for customers’ kids who, now as parents themselves, return to the same aisles with their children at Walmart #2228, 555 Hubbard Avenue.
Living and working with Down Syndrome, Anne-Margaret, affectionately known as Annie by her friends and co-workers, is proof that disabilities don’t have to stop a person from being a hard-working, dependable employee.
But on November 25, “Black Friday,” that dependable presence vanished. The neatly folded stacks of children’s clothes started to fall into disarray, and the aisles felt noticeably emptier. The smile that brightened the days of tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, over the years was nowhere to be seen.
Management told her, without explanation, she simply wasn’t on the schedule and to go home, according to her brother, Scott Connors. As her guardian, her brother had Annie’s schedule and regular habits memorized — he was as confused as his sister.
Connors recalled, “I reached out to her job coach and he said, ‘boy, you know, she’s not on the schedule — I don’t know what’s going on.’ But he said that until they get it settled not to have her come back. So we said, okay. In the meantime, we started hearing rumblings and stories from people that there were other part-time people who were not developmentally disabled that had fixed hours, like my sister, who were told the same thing.”
Annie’s Employment Journey Begins
In 2008, Annie became part of a community of co-workers and regular shoppers from the Pittsfield area, joining the workforce at Walmart, not just as an employee, but a cherished part of the store’s fabric. Her role was facilitated through Berkshire County ARC (BCArc), which advocates for, and manages, community-based employment opportunities for people with disabilities, among other services.
Role of Berkshire County ARC and Job Coaches
Berkshire County ARC has been instrumental in bridging the gap between potential and opportunity for individuals like Annie. Job coaches from the organization, such as Matt Alibozek and Regan Tyer, play a pivotal role. They don’t just find job placements; they nurture a working environment that is both productive and inclusive, ensuring that employees with disabilities are valued and supported.
Alibozek, Annie’s job coach, indicated via her brother that he wasn’t authorized to speak about her specific situation at Walmart. In a blog post on BCArc’s website, however, he shares some thoughts about his work with individuals with disabilities and their employers to ensure the relationship is productive and positive for both sides.
“There are employers in the Berkshires,” he says in the post, “who have been working with the disabilities community for many years, and they know it’s a great deal. They get a loyal, dependable, excited worker eager to learn everything, they get a person like me to manage any issues, and it always raises morale because the staff rally together to make it work.”
Regan Tier, Alibozek’s supervisor, agrees and elaborates.
“The right fit is the key to a successful relationship,” explains Regan in a Berkshire County ARC blog post. “Our employers are great. They work with us to mold the job to the individual’s skills, strengths and passion. It doesn’t take long for our individuals to contribute to the culture of a workplace. We have a few who have been working for the same companies for more than 20 years.”
David Singer, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at BCArc, described a hearty community of workers spread out throughout Berkshire County. “We have about 110 people out in the community,”‘ he said. “They’re at places like Big Y, Walmart, Mountain Lodge. Blue Q has about 12 or 13 people who work there. They’re super supportive. They’ve set up a shop there for them and everything. And then we have staff who will check in on them, We have BCArc staff who support the employees and help resolve any issues that may come up.”
Singer said that in time, BCArc clients enjoy a work experience like that of everybody else at an employer site. They become part of their culture and are treated like any other employees.
The benefits of the arrangement cut both ways, according to Singer, who shed light on the significant benefits that employers receive by hiring individuals with disabilities.
“Employers who embrace inclusive hiring practices see numerous advantages,” Singer explains. “They get a workforce that is not only loyal and dependable but also one that brings a unique enthusiasm and eagerness to learn. It elevates the entire work environment.”
As for what happened to the shifts Annie expected to work during the holidays, he’s not so sure. He said that, as far as he knows, no issue has surfaced that would cause Annie’s supervisor to de-schedule her and other part time workers.
Annie’s Sudden Schedule Removal
The reasons for Walmart to pull Annie’s hours remain unclear, with no explanation forthcoming from the store’s management.
The Greylock Glass attempted to contact Walmart’s regional management, but did not receive a response by the time this story was published.
Her brother described the situation, “No one has officially informed her or anyone from BCArc that this is what’s going on, so we’re kind of stymied. One week went into two, went into three, and we’re all concerned.The folks from BCArc went in there to try to get an answer. And every time they went in, there’s a sign on the manager’s door that says ‘in a meeting, do not disturb.’ They tried to talk to front line supervisors who said they knew nothing. They were met by some part time folks who who had worked there, who said that they’re suffering the same thing.”
One of Annie’s co-workers who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation said that they were also a long-time employee at the store. In their time there, they say they’ve experienced a steady decline in treatment when it comes to available hours.
“I used to have close to a full time schedule,” the worker said. “Nowadays they have me on sometimes just three days for short shifts. Sometimes just two. A couple weeks they’ve only put me on for 10 hours.”
The logical conclusion would be that increased hiring is the cause of fewer hours doled out among more employees. According to the employee, this isn’t the case.
“When I started, there used to be 200 employees. Now it’s down to just a little more than half that,” they said. “We used to get bonuses every 12 months; now we don’t. We used to get holiday pay; now we don’t. A lot of people have left to go to BJ’s. BJ.’s gives you the hours, and they pay better anyway.”
Asked specifically about Annie’s de-shifting, her co-worker had an inkling. “The rumor is that it’s come down from some big boss on high at corporate,” they said. “Some woman who demanded that they cut staff.”
Calling her “Little Annie,” the employee said that in just a few short weeks, her absence has been noteworthy.
“Little Annie, yeah, she worked over in the little kids clothes a lot. You’d see her sitting on the floor all the time, folding the clothes and putting them back on the shelves and such. Now? That departments a mess! Clothes on the floor. Piles of clothes just torn through. Yeah, since she’s been gone, it’s like no one is taking over her area.”
Singer says that BCArc is going to continue to follow up with Annie’s managers, but for now is grabbing for straws just like her brother.
“I know we are trying to figure it out,” he reflected,” but we don’t know what’s going on there at all. It sounds like what’s happening is Walmart-wide and not anything to do with Anne, but I don’t know that.”
Community and Walmart’s Response
The silence from Walmart’s management has been palpable. Efforts by Annie’s job coach and her brother, Scott Connors, to seek clarity have been met with closed doors and unanswered questions. Meanwhile, the community’s response has been one of concern and confusion, with many missing the familiar, friendly face of Annie at the store.
Financial Strain During the Holidays:
The timing of Annie’s removal from her work schedule at Walmart couldn’t have been more challenging. With the holiday season approaching, a period often associated with increased expenses, the loss of income has placed a significant financial strain on her. As someone who has relied on her steady income for the past 15 years, this sudden change has left Annie grappling with financial uncertainty at a time when she and her family would typically be preparing for holiday celebrations.
“It’s Christmas time,” said Annie’s brother. “There’s no money. They’re not letting them work. Someone said, ‘geez, we think this is a corporate decision,’ but I later got a message from someone on Facebook who indeed works at the North Adams Walmart, and they said, ‘I read your post, and this is definitely not a corporate decision across all stores, because we have people here with fixed schedules who are working part time and they’re not suffering the same thing.”
That correspondence leads Connors to believe Annie’s de-scheduling is a localized issue at the Pittsfield Walmart.
He explained, “So, I passed that on to her job coach. And then I got a call from BCArc yesterday, and they informed me that they’re still trying every day to go in and talk to the manager.”
Emotional and Psychological Effects
Beyond the financial implications, Annie’s situation has had profound emotional and psychological impacts. For someone who found a sense of identity and purpose in her job, being unexpectedly sidelined has been disheartening. Her brother revealed the depth of Annie’s distress. She has been left questioning her value and the sudden change in her routine, which was a source of stability and satisfaction for her, has been deeply unsettling.
Connors said, “Part of her developmental disability is that she is a creature of habit. And, boy, you know, she is on a schedule and she just she thrives on that schedule. You take her off that schedule, and her world kind of goes to pieces. You know, she’s used to going into work every day this time and this time, and and she just, you know, she thrives on that. And now she doesn’t have that. And so it’s it’s really had a had an emotional impact on her.”
As much as her brother tries to console her, Annie struggles to understand how she can report for work one day and be sent home without any explanation
“She keeps asking what she did wrong and why they don’t want her anymore,” shares Connors. “It’s heartbreaking to see her go through this, especially since she’s given so much of herself to her job for so many years.”
Legal Context and Implications
Massachusetts’ “At-Will” Employment Law:
It’s important to note that Massachusetts is an “at-will” employment state, meaning employers generally have the right to terminate employees at any time, for any reason or for no reason at all. However, this broad authority is not without its limitations. While employers in Massachusetts can let go of employees ‘at will’, they are still bound by federal and state laws that protect certain classes of employees, according to the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General. This includes protections for employees with disabilities under federal law.
Protections Under the Americans with Disabilities Act
The ADA provides substantial protections to employees with disabilities, ensuring they are not discriminated against in their employment. This includes unfair termination or, perhaps, as in Annie’s case, potentially being systematically removed from a work schedule.
- The termination is unrelated to the disability or
- The employee does not meet legitimate requirements for the job, such as performance or production standards, with or without a reasonable accommodation or
- Because of the employee’s disability, he or she poses a direct threat to health or safety in the workplace.
The ‘de-scheduling’ of Annie, a long-term employee with a known disability, raises questions about whether this action might be a circumvention of the protections afforded under the ADA. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lays out some fairly clear guidelines about the obligations of employers regarding employees with disabilities. Legal experts suggest that while employers can adjust schedules, doing so in a manner that disproportionately affects a protected employee could be seen as a workaround to ADA requirements.
Grey Area in Employment Law
Annie’s situation illustrates a grey area in employment law. On the surface, it may not look like a direct termination, but the impact is essentially the same. If an employee is removed from the work schedule indefinitely, especially without a clear reason, it’s a concern, particularly for someone in a protected class.
A Bleak Holiday for Annie
As the holiday lights twinkle in the streets of Pittsfield and families gather to celebrate the season of giving and unity, Annie faces a starkly different reality. The joy and warmth that typically define this time of year stand in sharp contrast to the uncertainty and distress clouding her festive season. In a home that should be filled with holiday cheer, there’s a palpable sense of loss and confusion.