The New York Times, an otherwise very reputable and trustworthy newspaper — indeed, here in the Northeast it is rightly viewed as the newspaper of record — appears to this observer to be inordinately fond of finding fault with Walmart. (It should be added here that this same journalist, and the newspaper he represents, is second to none in his affection and respect for the world’s largest retailer.)
The latest broadside, in the Times’ edition of September 29, takes Walmart to task for exposing its staffers to COVID-19. The headline alone is scary enough to turn heads: “ ‘Every Day Is Frightening’: Working at Walmart Amid COVID.”
The story is centered on a Walmart staffer named Peter Naughton, a victim of seizures who recently suffered yet another, waking on the floor of his residence. Yet overriding and overwhelming as his serious medical condition was, in the Times’ view, an even more dire situation was the dread of depleting his limited paid time off in the midst of a pandemic.
Naughton, according to the Times, is a cashier and self-checkout host at a Walmart near Baton Rouge, La. His mother insisted that her 44-year-old son remain at home in the seizure’s aftermath, noting that the hours following a seizure were difficult ones, compounded in this instance by the stress of COVID-19 and a customer base that largely rejected mask use.
Finally, Naughton’s mother’s entreaties prevailed, and he remained at home. Unable to reach the store by phone, and concerned about losing his job by not phoning in, Naughton relented and, despite feeling woozy, clocked in.
End of story? Not at all. The article goes on to document the pressure-packed lives of low-wage employees who are compelled to come to work — or risk losing their jobs. “Every day is frightening,” the Times quotes Naughton as explaining. The Times points out that Naughton, who lives with his parents because on his salary of $11.55 an hour he can’t afford his own apartment, has been fully vaccinated, adding, however, that his 78-year-old father, with whom he lives, has health issues that prevent him from being vaccinated and increases the dangers of severe illness should he contract COVID-19.
The story goes on this way for quite a while, expanding its view to include low-wage earners throughout the country while recounting many of the reasons many people shun the COVID vaccine. But intentional or not, the Times returns to the conclusion that much of the blame during this time of uncertainty and stress falls to Walmart. Even the headline, “Working at Walmart Amid COVID,” addresses the role of America’s largest retailer for allegedly not doing more to understand and so ameliorate the disease. The piece even points up the fact that the retailer’s 2020 fiscal year volume was $559 billion.
The article raises as many questions as it answers. It reiterates that by-now-indisputable fact that these are indeed difficult times. In placing blame, the newspaper cites such bogeymen as fast-food restaurants, grocery stores, warehouses, nursing homes and “anywhere else frontline workers show up each day.”
Along the way Naughton himself contributes to the uncertainty that surrounds the staffs at the low end of the wage scale. “It wasn’t always like this,” he says. “It used to be more friendly here. It’s become hostile. People are really on edge. They fight with you in the store, or with each other.”
All this is undeniably true. But Walmart is no more guilty of perpetuating this environment than are dozens of other mass retailers, all blind-sided by an avalanche of events no one could have predicted or forestalled. To blame Walmart is to choose the most obvious target, the nation’s largest employer and a company frequently targeted in the past for its treatment of low-wage staffers that sometimes raised questions and concerns, often by communities with little or no knowledge of the world of mass retailing.
But, as has often been repeated, it is indeed lonely at the top — and the world’s largest retailer has hopefully come to terms with these random shots that become more prevalent in times that can only be characterized as more stressful than normal.
The hope here is that Walmart is not only big in sales, but big enough to understand and, hopefully, forgive.