Sam Landstra – Staff Writer
Harlan Van Maanen sits hunched over in his red walker at the back of the self-checkout area in the Sioux Center Walmart. His neon yellow Walmart vest covers a blue Henley shirt. Long, wispy white hair peeks out from underneath an Iowa Hawkeyes baseball cap. Large wire-frame glasses and a thick mustache adorn his face.
Van Maanen watches customers scanning items and placing them into bags with attentive eyes. Around him, the mechanical whir of automatic doors usher shoppers in and out of the store with carts of food and household items. The beeps from checkout lines form an electronic chorus.
A Sioux Center native, Van Maanen has worked at Walmart for 9 years. This past month he made the change from door greeter to self-checkout attendant due to Walmart’s recent changes to the position.
In February, the corporate superpower began replacing their iconic greeters with “Customer Hosts” at over 1,000 stores across the nation. Expanding upon the responsibilities of a greeter, customer hosts assist in security detail, helping shoppers with bags and checking receipts. These new tasks come with additional requirements, as well. Customer hosts must be able to lift 25 pounds, climb a ladder and stand for extended periods of time.
Affected by cerebral palsy, Van Maanen weighed only three pounds at birth and cannot walk without assistance. For disabled individuals like himself, a future at the company appeared to be in jeopardy.
Greeters have been a Walmart staple since the early 1980s, when founder Sam Walton formed the position based off a Louisiana store worker suggestion. In 2003, when Walmart launched their “Diversity and Inclusion” initiative, many disabled and elderly individuals found employment due to the light demands of the job. However, in 2016, Walmart announced a plan that would phase out the position as an effort to keep up with companies such as Amazon, who use online shopping.
In their February statement, Walmart gave its greeters until April 26 (60 days) to find employment elsewhere, should they not make the transition to customer host. However, the news was met with significant social media backlash. The plea of Adam Catlin, a greeter affected by cerebral palsy, went viral. Days later, President and CEO of Walmart Greg Foran stated the company was “taking significant steps to support them” and extended indefinitely the 60-day transition period for disabled workers.
The switch from greeter to self-checkout attendant has not yielded many challenges for Van Maanen.
“People… I like talking to people,” Van Maanen said. The new position still allows for high amounts of human interaction.
“I’m thankful Walmart found a spot for me,” he said. In the past, he has not been so fortunate. Using a motorized scooter to move around on the job, Van Maanen worked at Link Manufacturing for 25 years until he was fired. The company claimed they “didn’t have a spot” for him anymore. “They wanted me out like a criminal,” he said.
The green light above kiosk #4 turns orange as a middle-aged man in a grey hoodie sweatshirt scans a bottle of alcohol. Van Maanen notices the alert, stands up from his walker, and uses its assistance to hobble a few short steps towards the problem.
“What’s your birthday?” Van Maanen asks. He punches a code into the kiosk and the light turns green. The man thanks Van Maanen and heads towards the exit with his bags.
“Have a nice day!” Van Maanen says.
Another store-goer walking towards the doors and recognizes Van Maanen at his post. He checks her receipts and the two exchange well wishes. In a small town of 7,000, longtime greeters are recognizable figures in the community.
Dordt freshman and Sioux Center native Rylan Brue remembers the day the store opened. The superstore remains the largest shopping center in the area to this day.
“Not many companies have a space for disabled workers,” Brue said. “Walmart is doing a good step to not totally write them off.”
“By rethinking their action, Walmart is now opening the door to actually help individuals realize their full employment potential,” said Cheryl Bates-Harris, a senior disability advocacy specialist at the National Disability Rights Network.
Midway through his shift, Van Maanen takes his break. Using his walker, he lumbers towards a motorized scooter stationed at the returns area. A Minnesota Twins bomber jacket drapes over the seat. Van Maanen boards the scooter with care and drives off to break.