Wal-Mart customer threatened Columbine-style shooting, employees’ concerns ignored

Rhonda Sherman works the nightshift at the Wal-Mart on Tower Road in Aurora. Friday, she and a handful of other employees stood facing the road with signs, a megaphone and leaflets that outlined their concerns about workplace safety at the store.

“Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart, you’re no good! Treat your workers like you should,” one employee’s godson chanted into the megaphone. Drivers honked their horns and waved to show support.

Sherman and a handful of other employees were there to protest management’s handling of an incident earlier this month that left her scared to come to work.

Sherman was on her lunch break waiting to make a purchase on July 2 when a customer reeking of alcohol behind her in line hit her in the face. She can’t think of any reason he would have been provoked.

Taken aback, she asked him why. “I’m sorry. I’m bad,” he said. “And you’re just a Wal-Mart employee.”

Sherman went to get her manager when the man called after her: “If you don’t shut the fuck up in two seconds, we’re going to have a Columbine situation in here.”

That’s when she got truly scared. Sherman told three different managers what had happened, and they all brushed her off. One told her to “get over it and put [her] white-girl happy face on.”

On the phone with The Colorado Independent, one of the managers Sherman named said the incident took place during his and another manager’s lunch break, so they weren’t responsible for dealing with it.

“There’s not anyone who can tell you what exactly happened,” he said. Wal-Mart’s national office for media relations also didn’t reply to requests for comment.

Sherman followed up with her manager who told her she had seen the customer wipe his car handle down with a t-shirt in the parking lot before driving away, musing that the car was probably stolen. But she didn’t call the police. “Well I can’t come in today then,” Sherman remembers saying, to which her manager replied: “OK.” Sherman called the police herself.

The police report shows the case was inactivated because of a lack of information about the suspect or any workable leads. There have been 146 documented incidents at this Wal-Mart since January, ranging from shoplifting to armed robbery to assault. It’s one of the only stores in the area open all night.

Sherman said she couldn’t bear to go to work for five days after the attack. She sought medical help for her anxiety. High stress levels are bad for Sherman’s immune system because she has Leukemia.

Medicated and back at work, Sherman started talking to her co-workers about the incident. She found she wasn’t alone in getting ignored by management. Another employee got mugged right outside the store two weeks prior. She was beaten badly enough to get her jaw wired for weeks.

Another employee, Barbara Gertz, hasn’t personally experienced violence at the workplace but says she’s faced retaliation for talking about these incidents in the store. Managers called her into the office last week to say they wouldn’t tolerate her gossiping. “They said I was getting the workers in an uproar … What I talk about on my break or on my lunch is none of their business.”

Sherman says she feels sick to her stomach at work. “I’m usually very friendly and now I just want to help them and get them out of my aisle. And that’s just not me.”

Sherman has worked at the Wal-Mart on Tower Road on and off for eight years. She says she shouldn’t have to worry about violence at work. “Because what would they have done if they hadn’t taken it seriously and he went out to his car and gotten a gun? It happens. We know it happens. [For] people here in Colorado, it’s offensive.”

Sherman, Gertz and several others picketing on Friday are members of the Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart — a group that demands dignity and fairness in the company’s labor practices. The primary focus of Friday’s rally was workplace safety, but nationally, OUR Wal-Mart also organizes around wages, discrimination and free speech.

Last year, chief judge Philip McNulty of the First District Court issued a court order prohibiting anyone associated with OUR Wal-Mart or the United Food and Commercial Workers union who’s not a current Wal-Mart employee from protesting on Wal-Mart property in Colorado. That includes “picketing, patrolling, parading, demonstrations, flash mobs, handbilling, solicitation, rallies, video-bombing, and manager confrontations.” Read the full injunction here.

Seven other states have similar injunctions all of which are in appeal based on the argument that as long as these activities don’t harm store property they should be constitutionally protected free speech.

Photo by Ron Dauphin, Creative Commons, via Flickr and photo by Nat Stein (Sherman pictured on far right.)