Black Friday ruckus, firing changes 73-year-old Walmart greeter's life

Jan Sullivan, 73, recently sold the St. Petersburg home in which she is pictured. She will move into a mobile home in nearby Seminole, “something I can afford on my Social Security,” she says.

LEAH MILLIS | Times

Jan Sullivan, 73, recently sold the St. Petersburg home in which she is pictured. She will move into a mobile home in nearby Seminole, “something I can afford on my Social Security,” she says.

ST. PETERSBURG

Jan Sullivan scoots back on the brown suede couch, and her slippers dangle off the edge. At 4 feet 11, her toes don't quite touch the floor.

She stares at a blue plastic cup filled with unsweet Lipton perched on her lap. Her cheeks are flushed, her eyes bloodshot. Her lips quiver. She's 73, a hard, self-made woman, raised on corn farms and cattle ranches. She is not a crier. But these last seven months have tried her.

Behind the couch, a window overlooks her front yard. Past wind chimes suspended from of a banyan tree, a white 4 by 4 post is dug into the St. Augustine grass. The words on the sign are bold and bright red: "SOLD IN 1 DAY."

It's a two-bedroom, white and brown cinder block home in Bay Pines. The house isn't fancy, but it's hers. She doesn't want to give it up.

For so long, Sullivan's life was her job. She worked for Walmart for 22 years and six months — selling batteries and basketball hoops and shotguns, stocking shelves, greeting customers.

Then came Thanksgiving.

That night, she says, an angry Black Friday shopper shoved her. To catch her balance or to defend herself or both, she reached out and, for a few seconds, grabbed the woman's sweater.

Three days later, Sullivan was fired.

Without a job, her life savings have dried up and, for the first time in her life, she owes thousands to a credit card company.

She feels ashamed. Deserted. Alone.

Her adult nephew stays with her sometimes, mostly so he can search for work. She is twice divorced, and her two remaining brothers live far from here. Her neighbors have been kind, but soon she'll have to move away. She has no dog, no cat and no children.

Sullivan fidgets, then tucks her legs underneath her. She looks up from the iced tea.

"Walmart was like my home," she says. "Like my family."

• • •

It was just past 10 Thanksgiving night at the Walmart on Tyrone Boulevard. Hundreds of frantic shoppers scrambled through the aisles, searching for pre-Black Friday sales on jeans and coffeemakers and Barbie dolls. Next to an automatic door, Sullivan stood guard.

A green mesh safety vest, meant to make Sullivan look more commanding, hung from her shoulders like a poncho. Beneath it, she wore khaki pants and white sneakers and, pinned to a blue shirt, a tag inscribed with her first name and the phrase "20 Years of Dedicated Service."

Normally, Sullivan worked as a greeter. Smiling, nodding, pointing to carts. But her job that night, she says a manager had told her, was to stop customers from exiting through the entrance.

What happened at 10:33 p.m., Sullivan still doesn't entirely understand.

A 40-something-year-old woman in jeans and a baggy sweater wanted, then demanded, to leave through that entrance. After a brief disagreement, Sullivan says, the woman pushed her. Sullivan says she thought she was falling, so she reached out and clutched the woman's sweater. After she let go, the woman stomped out, and Sullivan never saw her again.

A manager called Sullivan into a back office about an hour later. He had seen the incident on a security video. Walmart employees, he told her, could not touch customers under any circumstances. He suspended her and told her to leave the property. On Sunday, a manager called her back in. He fired her, she says, and asked that she not speak to anyone on her way out.

A Walmart spokeswoman wouldn't discuss the case's details, but said Sullivan clearly violated company policy.

"Regardless of her intentions, her actions put her own safety and possibly the safety of a customer in jeopardy," Kayla Whaling said. "We can't condone behavior where associates take matters into their own hands."

That Sunday, Sullivan drove home and slumped into bed. She watched TV and prayed a little, but she didn't call anyone for advice or support. There was no one to call.

Worry consumed her in the days that followed. A Type 2 diabetic, her blood sugar spiked. Sullivan wondered how she would make it.

Every month, she owed $609 on a mortgage and $429 on a 2009 Toyota Rav4. Those two expenses alone gobbled up her Social Security check.

But while Sullivan searched for a new job, she would at least receive unemployment benefits. She could still afford to buy gas. To keep the lights on. To eat.

Or so she thought.

A week after her firing, she learned that her application for benefits had been denied. She appealed, but lost. Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity determined she had been terminated for "misconduct" and was therefore ineligible to receive any money.

Walmart had presented the state with a handful of grainy images taken from a video recording, Sullivan says. They show her gripping the woman's sweater, but don't explain what led to it. She has never seen the video.

Sullivan has contacted at least three law firms. Only one called back, to say they couldn't help.

She had a couple grand saved, but that soon dissolved. She now owes more than $3,000 on her Discover card. The thought of that, of falling into debt she can't pay back, overwhelms her. She can't talk about it.

"This is wrong to the nth degree," says her neighbor, Jeff Wetherbee, who was so angry about what happened that he contacted the media. "This is the little old lady across the street who makes peanut brittle for the neighborhood every Christmas."

• • •

Sullivan was the second youngest of eight children. Two girls, six boys. On the day she was born, in December 1938, her father slaughtered a hog and brought sausage to the hospital for her mother's dinner.

He worked for a railroad company, and Mom stayed home with the kids. On the 20-acre family farm, she learned to clean floors, work fields and roll cigarettes in newspaper and corn silk.

Her family moved to Aripeka when she was 16 and, not by her own choice, she dropped out of high school.

"You don't need to go to school," her father had told her. "You're just going to go get married and have kids."

He was part right. At 19, she married an Army veteran who wanted to be a cowboy. In two separate pregnancies, both of her fallopian tubes burst. She could never have children.

In her late 20s, she and her husband bought an 80-acre cattle ranch in Bushnell. That was a hard, often unhappy life, but some stories from those days still make her smile: the afternoons pinning calves that weighed more than she did; the trips to sell live rattlesnakes, caught in the fields, for $2 a foot to the Citrus Tower in Clermont; the day she helped drive 100 cattle across Highway 27 and a man named Charlie Jones bull-whipped a green Cadillac that kept blaring its horn.

After 20 years of working from dawn to dusk, then cooking dinner each night, Sullivan left.

"I got tired of it," she says. "I was nothing but a ranch hand."

Sullivan soon married another military veteran. They got a mobile home together in Nobleton, but the relationship ended a decade later, and she swore off marriage for good. At age 50, Sullivan moved out on her own.

"I had a tank of gas," she says, "and 50 cents."

She cleaned homes, scrubbed bathrooms at a Shell station and, for a short while, prepped food in an elementary school cafeteria.

Then, in May 1989, she got a new job at the Walmart in Bushnell. She made about $4 an hour.

Sullivan worked in sporting goods because she knew sporting goods. She'd once caught a 9-pound largemouth bass, and her precision with a .410 long-barrel shotgun had sent many a squirrel to the deep fryer.

Customers mailed the company letters, praising her expertise.

"She knows her stuff," they'd say.

Sullivan had found something different in her new job. Co-workers admired her. They helped her. They shared breaks and lunches and Christmas parties with her.

The family Sullivan had for so long been denied by nature she found in, of all places, Walmart.

She moved to the Tyrone store in 1995 and made new friends.

Over lunches, she and a greeter named Millie, who is now 93, shared gossip and tuna salad.

Each New Year's, she fixed black-eyed peas and corn bread for the whole store.

On girls' nights out, she and four or five others would go to the American Legion, and she'd drink one Michelob Light.

Sullivan hurt her back about 10 years ago moving a treadmill. She transferred out of sporting goods and briefly worked in batteries before she became a greeter.

She had no retirement fund with Walmart, but she was among the employees eligible for the company's now-extinct profit-sharing program. About four years ago, she got $50,000.

Sullivan didn't know where to invest the money, so she sank it into her house: Italian wood cabinets, Brazilian wood flooring, quartz countertops.

The feathers of her nest were all in place.

Back then, she didn't look much beyond the next day, but she didn't have to.

She belonged to a company that was good to her. She worked with people she liked and who liked her back. And, earned all on her own, she had more than at any other time in her life.

She stopped getting raises in the last year or two because, Sullivan says, her pay had surpassed the maximum a greeter could earn. She made $15.32 an hour.

"Big money," she says proudly.

• • •

Sullivan shuffles into the kitchen and, with two hands, lugs the chilled jar of tea from the refrigerator. Her cup is empty.

She would prefer real iced tea, cloudy with sugar, but the diabetes won't allow that. She peels the tops off two packs of Sweet'N Low.

"I've got to be able to taste the sweet," she says.

Her voice is low and plodding and seasoned with a slight Southern drawl she has picked up over six decades in Florida. She curses, when it's called for.

Sullivan sinks back into the couch. It's warm inside but she keeps the air off to keep the bills down. Her new mobile home, she says, is just a few miles away in Seminole. She found places she liked more, but they were too expensive. Hers will cost $3,000.

It has white aluminum siding and baby blue window shutters and an azalea bush along its south side. The double-wide comes with two bedrooms and 1 1/2 bathrooms, and it rests atop gray bricks stacked 3 feet off the ground. It's tucked in a neighborhood of 80-some other mobile homes packed together like shipping containers.

"It's something I can afford on my Social Security," she says. "And hopefully the electric bill won't be too high."

Sullivan sought dozens of jobs in the last half year so she wouldn't have to move into a place like that. She has applied at sporting goods stores, consignment shops and even for a position sitting at night with sick elderly people.

"I'm 73 years old," she says. "Who's going to hire me?"

Sullivan could ask her two brothers in Ohio for help, but she's too proud. She sold the house for $136,000. That's $14,000 less than she put into it.

Still, with the money she makes, Sullivan can pay off her mortgage, her car and her credit card. She'll save the few thousand dollars left over.

Sullivan misses the paycheck from Walmart, certainly, but she misses the people more.

Just one last time, she'd like to cook chicken and dumplings for the company's All Children's Hospital fundraiser dinner. She'd like to see her old friends, not just talk on the phone now and then. She'd like to welcome her regulars to the store again and, this time, ask their last names.

Sullivan wonders what her life would be like now if she'd had children or, maybe, found a new man. Other people her age, she sees, have someone around. She doesn't mind being alone. She just wonders.

She struggles to see any good coming from what's happened but is certain she'll find peace in time. She always has. Sullivan still won't look much beyond the next day.

And her hopes for the future?

Her eyes wander the ceiling, considering the question. The answer comes to her.

Sullivan smiles.

"Just a buddy," she says. "For fishing."

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8472. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnWoodrowCox.

Black Friday ruckus, firing changes 73-year-old Walmart greeter's life 06/26/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 9:27am]

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