Why we were at Walmart, hauling an outrageously heavy treadmill with a whimpering motor, is itself a long story involving Craig’s List, a pregnant woman who found the treadmill ridiculous after the baby was born, a football-loving coupon, and a warranty and receipt in my hands. When we called Walmart about exchanging the dying treadmill for something better, a young man on the phone said yes, no problem.
So here we were, Daniel and me, in front of a customer service’s rep. I explained it all to her, or at least a less-convoluted version, and she immediately looked overwhelmed Five Walmart employees were talking together on the end of the desk, and she called to them. They ignored her. She called again, and yelled out, “HeLLOOOO!” with enthusiastic sarcasm.
The huddle moved to us, and demanded to know who exactly I spoke with at Walmart. Not having the name, all I could say was, “a nice young man.” They rolled their eyes, told me there was no way we could exchange it — it had been too long since it was purchased, and what we needed to do was to call the manufacturer. I repeated, several times, what a deal it was to haul in this giant, heavy piece of equipment, and it was on them that we went to all this effort.
Finally, a woman with short brown hair and a face that said “Take no prisoners!” agreed to let us exchange it for the exact model IF it was in stock, but nothing else. We rushed to sporting goods, and it was in stock. We rushed back to find a line had formed, the original women we talked with were all gone, and there was now a new employees there along with someone else staring at a panel of buttons and lights. I went to the someone else to see if the women who left had left whatever authorization was needed (before we waited in line). I mentioned the manager too.
“She’s on break, and I don’t work in customer service,” the woman said, looking down at her panel of buttons. I asked the woman who did work in customer service. “She’s on break,” she answered.
“I know she’s on break, but I’m just making sure before I wait in line for a long time that you have whatever paperwork you need for this exchange.”
“She’s on break,” the customer service rep answered angrily.
I stepped away and waited. What happened next included Daniel running to sporting goods, a man with a dolly, a long wait, an anxious woman exchanging a hot-pink-checkered dog sweater (she bought the Great Dane size when she meant to buy the Beagle size), more of a wait, and a second customer service rep who worked with me for 20 minutes as she wrestled with the cash register to ring up the exchange properly. I also learned to use a scanning gun in the process.
Finally leaving, my anger at the Walmart employees dissolved into sadness, especially after I watched the previously-mean customer service rep have to explain, at least six times, to an elderly woman (who was sure she was being ripped off) how a store credit worked. The line behind us including increasingly tense, worn-out and exasperated customers.
I’ve worked a lot of shitty jobs in my life — all manner of fast food, big box department stores that couldn’t care less about their employees, a giant outdoor flea market in subzero temperatures and more — but it’s clear to me that working at Walmart would be worse. The pay is low, the leadership (at least at this store) is severely lacking, the customers can be pure hell, the rules are confusing, the lines are long, and Walmart is notorious for not giving employees full-time hours so as to avoid giving them benefits (there have been many articles in past years about how Walmart employees are often eligible for food stamps too because of the low pay).
So I can’t imagine a sadder place to work, especially for the poor souls in customer service, and I wish for all of them a way out or to change whatever makes that work so often life-draining.