After a 38-year-old Walmart worker died at the store, employees are fighting for a voice and more paid sick leave
On January 16, just a few hours after Janikka Perry ended her shift at an Arkansas Walmart, she was found in the bathroom, unresponsive.
According to a Medium post from her sister, Nicoshe James, Perry — a 38-year-old mother and grandmother — felt ill during her shift, but continued working. A supervisor excused her to go to the bathroom when Perry said she felt ill, according to James, and Perry then completed her shift. James wrote on Medium that her sister was likely “scared to call off and then scared to leave work in the middle of her shift.”
“That’s what it’s like working at Walmart,” James wrote.
Now James, a former Walmart associate, and current workers are calling on Walmart to enact a plan that would ensure sick employees receive time off and that associates have a voice in the company. It’s the latest instance of workers asking for more— and one that associates say is imperative for the future of workers and the company. James will address the company’s shareholder meeting on June 1 in pre-recorded testimony to talk about her sister and the proposal. Advocates will rally on June 2 in Bentonville, Arkansas to remember Perry.
“We express our deep condolences to Ms. Perry’s family and friends. We can all agree that Ms. Perry was a valued teammate and well-liked by those in the Walmart family who knew her,” Jimmy Carter, a Walmart spokesperson, said in a statement to Insider. “We disagree with how the circumstances have been characterized publicly. Out of respect for everyone involved, we are not going to publicly discuss details further.”
“Closing the casket” on Janikka was the hardest day of James’s life. Today, “it’s been four months and it seemed like it just happened yesterday.”
And it could happen again, James said.
“Another person, another family will have to endure the pain that my family is having to endure right now.”
An equal voice for workers
Cyndi Murray has worked at Walmart for 21 years. She said she’s seen how understaffing at the South Carolina store where she worked overburdened her and other associates. (Walmart has said it was overstaffed in the first quarter of 2022).
To address this and other issues, Murray’s been calling for years for Walmart associates to have a voice on the company’s board of directors, which steers corporate decisions. One request was for the company to form a pandemic taskforce that would include associates and executives crafting the company’s policies.
“We were essential workers, or so they wanted to call us during the pandemic, but they didn’t treat us in that manner,” she said. Perry’s death, she believes, could have been avoided.
Murray’s resolution to include workers on the board has become part of what Perry’s family and associates are calling the PERRY policy, which stands for paid sick leave, an equal voice on the job, a real emergency plan, time to rest and recover, and yearly reviews with shareholders.
Currently, Murray said that the company offers PTO. Any sick days must be taken as PTO.
Carter, the Walmart spokesperson, confirmed saying, “Walmart’s PTO policy combines paid sick leave, vacation time, personal time and holiday time into one category, giving associates flexibility in how to use their paid time off.”
“Through March 31, Walmart maintained a leave policy that allowed for Covid-related absences without consequences and we continue to encourage associates who are not feeling well to stay home,” he added.
“People get sick. It’s just part of life,” Peter Naughton, a Walmart cashier in Baton Rouge, told Insider. “Walmart doesn’t seem to understand that.”
Workers penalized for their health
Tammy McGill, who worked at Walmart from 2008 to 2021, said she was “so sorry” about what happened to Janikka.
“It’s either your health or work,” McGill said. “And that’s not something that we should have to decide on because our health should be more important than any dollar that’s being made in these stores.”
For James, it’s imperative that everyone moving forward should be able to work in a safe workplace. Naughton said workers can be “afraid to leave” over fear of losing their jobs.
The loss of Perry, James said, is the biggest loss of her life. Things like paid sick leave and time to rest and recover would help ensure that workers who feel ill can feel comfortable staying home.
“I just want them to understand that change do need to come, so that what happens to my sister doesn’t happen to anyone else,” she said.
She knows that everyone says it will get easier with time. But for her, it feels like it’s gotten harder with time.
Perry “would help anybody,” she said.
“If you needed somewhere to stay, she’d be somewhere to stay. If you were hungry, she would feed you. She would go without to help the next,” James said, adding: “All she ever gave out was love, love, love.”
“I can’t heal until I feel like something is done about this.”