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A Death at Walmart

Janikka Perry never made it home from her shift at the bakery of a supercenter in Arkansas. She was one of many Walmart workers who have been pressured to work through illness or pain, sometimes with devastating consequences.

This story was produced in partnership with Type Investigations.

On a chilly Sunday afternoon exactly two years ago today, Janikka Perry arrived for her bakery shift at a Walmart supercenter in North Little Rock, Arkansas. Once she began working, she started to feel unusually faint. As the hours wore on, she told her co-workers she wasn’t feeling well, and retreated to a bathroom for rest. But the store was short-staffed, and her manager allegedly told her to “pull herself together.”

Janikka had heart problems and diabetes—conditions management was aware of—and had worked through ailments before, because that’s the norm at Walmart. As recently as 2019, the company allowed employees to accrue nine penalizing points every six months before firing them. Today, it’s five. Workers receive those points for a whole host of reasons, like showing up late, leaving early, or taking unplanned time off, even if they’re sick or need to attend an important family function. 

But Janikka rarely missed work or went home early. She once left her own birthday party to go to work, leaving loved ones to vent that Walmart was taking too much of her time. One of her sons, Austin, once pleaded with his mom to quit. “She was like, ‘Who else is going to pay the bills and put clothes on your back?’” he said. “I couldn’t say nothing else.” 

Her commitment to Walmart came second only to church. No matter her schedule, Janikka never missed Sunday service at her local congregation. Each week, she would sing and pray in front of the pulpit’s large illuminated cross. On the morning of that shift in January, she attended mass with her mother, Fay, then wished her goodbye. “Mommy, I love you,” she said on her way out the door. “I’ll see you later.” 

Hours later, as night set in and Janikka’s shift neared its end, she withdrew to a stall in one of Walmart’s white-tiled restrooms for the second time in as many hours. Eighty-seven minutes later, at 11:21 p.m., she dialed 911 from the bathroom.

“I’m having difficulty breathing,” she told a dispatcher between coughs. “I feel like I’m about to pass out.” 

When an ambulance arrived, nine minutes after Janikka called, medics found her unconscious. They later rushed her to St. Vincent North Hospital, where she was pronounced dead of a heart attack. She was 38. 

Janikka spent many of her final years in between the walls of that store. But after her death, people there seemed afraid to talk about her. During a fall 2022 reporting trip, over a dozen associates at the supercenter declined to participate in this story when asked if they knew Janikka. I met one woman folding jeans who seemed open to talking, but seconds later, a store manager approached us and said that associates are prohibited from speaking with journalists on the clock. “You’re putting her at risk of getting in trouble,” the manager said. Then she called the police.

This isn’t the only way in which Janikka has been disappeared: Her death does not appear in federal workplace fatality data, and her heart attack does not show up in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s records, according to the agency. As a result, the agency never investigated her death. 

In Walmart founder Sam Walton’s view, in-store workers like Janikka, called “associates” in corporate parlance, were “the real front line” of the company, and he was hyper-focused on ensuring that customers viewed them as happy and helpful. For decades, customers would first encounter this cheeriness in the form of “greeters”—employees stationed near entrances to welcome shoppers. Then, inside, they’d encounter associates wearing name badges with smiley faces, all of whom have a mandate to begin their shifts with a rousing Walmart cheer.

To enhance Walton’s vision of the polished customer experience, executives in recent years have tested new store designs with interactive digital screens, 100 percent cashierless checkout, and a product-stocking app that uses augmented reality. They are adopting artificial intelligence and pushing into the metaverse. In May, Walmart remodeled a store in Bentonville, the company’s hometown, to double as a “high-tech” fulfillment center. And it is now building a sleek new global headquarters there too—200 miles northwest of where Janikka worked—estimated to cost $1 billion, as part of a broader effort to rebrand the town as the Silicon Valley of the South. As Walmart ventures into the twenty-first century, top brass has claimed that company practices have become more worker-friendly.

“We know our associates will always be the biggest difference-makers in our business, so we will continue to evaluate how … to best serve customers and also balance the needs of our associates,” wrote then–senior vice president Drew Holler in a 2021 company blog post about personnel policy changes. “We’re committed to offering good jobs that provide access, stability and opportunity.” 

The veneer of a humane and pleasant work atmosphere is reflected in government data, especially in the company’s home state: Complaints to the National Labor Relations Board from Arkansas Walmarts are scant, and data compiled by OSHA, the federal agency responsible for enforcing workplace safety standards, suggests that Walmart has an abnormally high percentage of stores in Arkansas that record zero injuries, illnesses, and deaths compared to its stores in other states.

But the reality in Arkansas falls far short of the P.R. image. An investigation from Type Investigations and The New Republic reveals that this lack of damning injury data—which, crucially, is self-reported—does not capture employees’ experiences in stores. Many workers are pressured to work while ill, in pain, or through other extenuating circumstances, according to workers and labor organizers. Several injury and illness cases that should have been reported to OSHA weren’t, according to government data, court records, and interviews with associates, suggesting that Walmart’s recording practices in Arkansas coincide with unreported issues and unrealized investigations. Failure to properly report to OSHA and failure to keep accurate annual records are violations and can result in fines. One former OSHA official said that given the injury rates at retail stores nationally, a Walmart recording zero injuries “should set off some red flags.” 

Walmart did not respond to most questions for this story. “Janikka Perry was a beloved member of the North Little Rock team,” a company spokesperson wrote in a statement. She added that our characterization of Janikka’s passing is “simply not true,” but did not provide a reason why and cited employee privacy concerns. She did not respond to multiple follow-ups asking her to specify which claims the company disputes. 

Despite all the money being poured into Bentonville and into the state’s stores for futuristic upgrades, Arkansas workers are largely left to fend for themselves—with little support from oversight agencies, unions, or the company. Many sources for this story requested anonymity, citing fear of retaliation, legal action, and professional consequences because of Walmart’s stature in the state.

“In this state, everybody’s afraid of Walmart, ’cause they’re a billion-dollar company,” Janikka’s mother, Fay, told me. “But my daughter is worth more than a billion dollars.”

A Walmart bakery can be a particularly difficult part of the store to work in: Janikka worked mostly on her feet, often in hot and cold conditions. Bakery staff haul heavy pallets of food out from the freezer, and some tend to an oven in the store’s poorly ventilated bakery, according to Cara Michelle, who filled Janikka’s position after her death. “It gets extremely hot back there,” she told me.

According to workers I spoke to, managers have some discretion over how they deal with an associate’s issues. One store manager (who was also Janikka’s friend) was uniquely sensitive to Janikka’s conditions. He often let her take short breaks so she could go to the bathroom to sit down and rest. But he left early during her last shift. Still, that day, Janikka told management she was feeling sick. In response, she was told that the store was short-staffed and she needed to keep working, according to store sources and an organizer from United for Respect, a nonunion group that emerged from an unsuccessful campaign to unionize the company and now organizes for workers’ rights there. 

Walmart did not respond to specific questions about Janikka’s experience with management during that shift. 

“Walmart offers full- and part-time associates paid time off and protected paid time off to use for just about anything,” wrote the Walmart spokesperson in response to questions about the company’s sick time policy, “including when they are sick and miss work as well as accommodations and leave of absence options.” An informational company web page for employees similarly boasts about protected paid time off: “Even if you use it at the last minute, it’ll protect you when having an unplanned absence,” it reads. 

But legal filings and interviews with two dozen current and former Walmart workers give a glimpse into an environment where unplanned absences go unexcused or penalized and associates are pressured to work when they feel unwell, even if they have protected PTO to use. Advocates say that Walmart poorly articulates and implements its paid time off policies: Both protected and regular time off are routinely denied, according to United for Respect, and points, which employees often receive for absences even due to medical conditions, incentivize working through any circumstance.

“If you’re not throwing up or passing out, they want you to stay,” one of Janikka’s former co-workers told me, requesting anonymity. “If you do pass out, they would demand an explanation for what’s wrong with you.”

Zena Green, another former North Little Rock associate, added that management “didn’t accept doctor’s notes.” 

The Walmart spokesperson also wrote that the company’s Covid-19 policies gave associates, including Janikka, “additional flexibility to stay home if they weren’t feeling well without using their paid time off without any consequences.”

And yet when United for Respect surveyed 1,500 Walmart associates across the country early in the pandemic, they found an “inadequate and unevenly applied emergency leave policy.” Fourteen percent of surveyed workers reported they could not access paid sick leave, while nearly 30 percent said they couldn’t afford to take unpaid leave. Nearly half said they were likely to come to work while ill, and many cited the fear of points and other penalties as the primary reason for doing so.

One associate explained that in their store, “it hasn’t been communicated if points are being waived, so people just don’t know what to do.”

Walmart did not respond to follow-up questions about its paid time off or Covid-19 policies.

These types of worker concerns are exacerbated in a state like Arkansas, which has no paid sick leave laws for private employees on the books. 

Mendy Hughes, a longtime employee in Malvern, told me she once watched an under-the-weather deli associate tell management she was sick, then pass out on the job. “If you’re sick at work they’ll tell you to go sit down for a few minutes until you feel better,” she said. “They don’t want you to leave.”  

Even when workers do stay home because they’re sick, they’re often penalized for it. In a 2019 legal complaint, Victor Levingston, an associate from a store in Little Rock, claimed he was given two points after missing work with the flu.

Tracie Johnson, a former associate in Little Rock and West Helena, said colleagues have been fired after missing shifts for legitimate reasons. “People really need these jobs,” she said, adding that she’s seen new associates terminated in less than a month because of the point system. Johnson confirmed that she herself routinely worked through sickness to avoid penalties.

Janikka was aware of how precarious a Walmart job was, even outside of its complicated sick time policies, because of her sisters’ experiences. Brittany had allegedly been let go from the North Little Rock Walmart after raising issues over toxic management and chronic understaffing, while Nicoshe said she was fired after missing work to attend her aunt’s funeral. Ahead of snowstorms, Janikka would go so far as to reserve a hotel room walking distance from the store, according to Brittany. A co-worker of hers recalled management threatening to fire employees if they didn’t clock in during a snowstorm. 

“You can go to Walmart right now; I bet you somebody is sick working in there because they are scared to lose their jobs,” Johnson told me, emphasizing that, to secure an excused absence, “you’d have to damn near die.” 

Walmart did not comment on these claims.

Before she called 911 on the night of her death, Janikka languished in the bathroom for nearly an hour and a half. While it’s unclear what accounts for that delay, associates from her store and others say that in general, they’re discouraged from calling for emergency help on the clock without talking to a manager first.

In some cases, they’re disciplined for it. “I had an associate once call 911, and she was written up for not talking to a manager first,” one of Janikka’s co-workers told me, echoing reports of claims from other associates and customers. In a particularly fraught 2018 case, ABC15 reported that an Arizona customer claimed that a Walmart employee physically prevented her from calling 911 after another employee collapsed to the ground.

Walmart’s policies related to in-store emergencies are not publicly available. Paula Curtis, a United for Respect organizer and Walmart associate of more than two decades, told me that Walmart also poorly articulates its emergency protocols to employees but said, in her understanding, associates are supposed to signal all emergencies to higher-ups instead of calling 911. “If management thought it was necessary to call 911, they would do it,” she said. 

This approach flies in the face of a federal OSHA rule mandating that employers provide first aid or access to emergency services within a few minutes of an identified emergency “to avoid permanent medical impairment or death.” Last year alone, OSHA issued over 400 citations against employers for violating this rule. 

Walmart did not comment on its in-store emergency policy and about workers’ claims that they’re discouraged from calling 911 on the clock. 

According to a 2017 report from the workers’ advocacy organization A Better Balance, which compiled survey data on sick time at Walmart in collaboration with United for Respect, an Arkansas associate said she nearly passed out on the job after her blood pressure peaked at 194/99—a reading that typically requires immediate medical attention. Pharmacy staff were tasked with monitoring her blood pressure. 

“It finally came down enough for me to call someone to come pick me up and take me home,” the associate explained. “I was given a half a point for leaving early.”

For much of the 2000s, Walmart stood in as the cultural symbol of all that was wrong with the U.S. economy and modern labor. Reporters exposed wrongdoing, workers fought to unionize, and politicians cast the company as America’s big-box boogeyman. Today, that political heat has been retrained on newer corporate behemoths.

In one 2020 meeting, Amazon executives complained that Walmart wasn’t subject to the antitrust pressures their own company faced, according to the book Winner Sells All by Jason Del Rey. Attendees concluded that Walmart had “been scrutinized years ago and their time had passed.” Most labor unions also removed Walmart from their agendas, partly in reaction to the company’s opposition efforts, like shuttering pro-union stores and spying on activists, and because their focus is now on Amazon, according to AFL-CIO general counsel Craig Becker. 

While the scrutiny has faded, Walmart has kept growing: The company’s wealth, political sway, and share of the global workforce continue to rise; the Waltons remain the wealthiest family in America (and until last year, in the world); and Walmart is the richest company in the world by revenue, a position it has held for over a decade. Arkansas government officials have moved onto company payroll over the years, including the former solicitor general and the director of the state police. At the same time, executives have taken government jobs, including Duane Kees, a former corporate investigations official who now runs a commission overseeing the state’s judges.

In the days after Janikka died, and in the two years since, Walmart has largely brushed the incident under the rug. When her sisters sought information on her final hours directly from the store, they say, a manager named Jason called the police and told them to get a subpoena. Jason did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him. 

The sisters ended up piecing together a few details by talking to skittish co-workers, with the help of United for Respect. Some said Walmart had told them to keep quiet about the incident. (Walmart did not comment on what it communicated to Janikka’s co-workers after her death.) 

Their fragmented stories, and others secured through our reporting, offer the closest thing to a formal investigation into Janikka’s death. That’s because Walmart failed to report Janikka’s heart attack to OSHA, whose data shows her store recorded zero fatalities in 2022, the year she died. The agency also confirmed that there is no record of Walmart reporting her heart attack in particular. Walmart did not comment on these findings.

Federal rules require employers to report all serious injuries and workplace fatalities—like hospitalizations and fatal heart attacks—to an OSHA field office within 24 hours and eight hours, respectively. After that, the agency launches an investigation to determine whether it was work-related, meaning that “an event or exposure in the work environment either caused or contributed to the resulting condition or significantly aggravated a pre-existing injury or illness.” Because Walmart did not report Janikka’s death, OSHA never investigated whether her work environment contributed to it. When a worker gets hurt or dies in their workplace, an OSHA investigation is one of the only avenues they or their family have for recourse and accountability.

Critically, investigations that result in violations often lead to settlements, significant safety improvements, and fines to the company, making such inspections one of OSHA’s key enforcement mechanisms. Inspection reports can also provide crucial documentation of poor workplace conditions.

Janikka’s family has made policy reform at Walmart one of their priorities since her passing. In particular, they’ve been pushing the company to adopt the PERRY policy, a set of rules proposed by organizers and former associates that includes two weeks of paid sick leave, detailed reaction plans for emergencies, codified time to rest and recover, and yearly reviews with shareholders. It’s designed to prevent a death like Janikka’s from happening again. 

When a company fails to properly report, not only is the agency’s regulatory power diluted, but it also leaves workers and families like Janikka’s with little evidence to aid them in this type of policy reform or in private litigation and workers’ compensation claims, cases in which the odds are already stacked severely against workers. It’s a situation that Anastasia Christman, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, describes as an uphill battle.  

In the absence of an OSHA inspection, when an employee is injured, they can take legal action based on other alleged violations of federal labor law, as with claims of employment discrimination or wrongful termination. Take the case of Jeremiah Santiago, who worked at Walm     art’s second North Little Rock supercenter. According to legal documents from an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation, the former associate said he brought concerns to management that air circulation in the garden center, where he worked, was poor. There was a fan outside, but it was always broken. He suffered heat stroke in the garden center on a sweltering July day in 2021 and was hospitalized, according to the documents, after which he secured a doctor’s note advising he take a few days off to recover. Management allegedly ignored the note, gave him points for his absence, and fired him. While Santiago’s lawyer submitted the note and other information as part of his case alleging disability discrimination, it apparently wasn’t enough. In a text, Santiago said the EEOC case was dismissed because there “wasn’t enough evidence.”

“Our whole economy here in Arkansas is tied to this organization, so you can’t really get a fair trial,” said a former company official, who still works in the state and requested anonymity to protect their current professional role.

Debbie Berkowitz, an OSHA chief of staff from 2009 to 2014, believes Walmart should have reported Santiago’s injury to OSHA. Because he was hospitalized, it falls in the category of injuries that should be reported within 24 hours. An OSHA database of such incidents includes many cases of heat stroke, but Santiago’s cannot be found in the data. Walmart did not comment on Santiago’s case.

In addition to reporting deaths and severe injuries when they happen, employers are required to keep records throughout the year of all injuries, illnesses, and deaths and submit annual summaries to OSHA. Using agency data, Type Investigations and The New Republic analyzed the recording patterns of Walmart stores around the country, focusing on stores that record no issues. Our analysis found that compared to all other states, Arkansas has the highest percentage of Walmarts recording zero in-store illnesses or injuries: In 2022, 15 percent of the state’s 138 Walmart retail outlets recorded no issues at all, compared to an average of 2.5 percent of Walmart retail stores nationwide. (By this same metric, Arkansas employers overall are closer to the total national employer average.) 

After hearing a summary of our research, Berkowitz said it’s “very suspicious for a retail store to have no work-related illnesses or injuries.” 

“When employers fail to report injury and illness incidents, they put their workers at risk of hazardous work conditions,” wrote an OSHA spokesperson in an email responding to our findings. Another agency spokesperson confirmed that failure to properly report fatalities and serious injuries—including heart attacks and those that lead to hospitalizations—and failure to keep accurate yearly records are themselves violations of OSHA rules and can result in citations and fines up to around $15,000. However, there is a six-month statute of limitations beyond which OSHA cannot issue citations based on violations.

Walmart did not respond to questions about its stores’ reporting and recording practices, but in the rare times when Walmart has interfaced with OSHA, it has put immense resources toward challenging the agency’s regulation efforts, once dropping more than $2 million in legal fees to fight a $7,000 OSHA fine levied after an employee was trampled to death in 2008 on Black Friday. A few years later, two trade associations that count Walmart as a member lobbied heavily against enactment of an Obama-era OSHA rule creating a public database of worker injuries. In 2016, according to OSHA, Walmart violated a corporate safety agreement with the agency, and at the time, a Walmart spokesperson told the press that the company was “confused” by OSHA’s claims. It continues to fight small fines. (The company did not respond to any questions about these cases or its relationship to OSHA.) 

OSHA’s inspection reports from Arkansas do not provide much insight into Walmart’s worker safety practices there. From 2012 to 2022, OSHA launched just eight Walmart inspections in Arkansas. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the agency provided records for just three of these cases, explaining that the others had been destroyed per government retention policies. (At least two of the cases, both out of Bentonville, were new enough to mandate preservation, but OSHA officials could not explain why they were destroyed.)

Jessica Martinez, co–executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health National, said OSHA is underfunded and overwhelmed, making it nearly impossible to effectively oversee Walmart’s behavior. 

She added that, in Janikka’s case, it seemed to her like “there was an almost intentional cycle to hide the truth.”

Walmart did not respond to questions about Martinez’s characterization.

Since its founding, Walmart has successfully formed a sphere of influence, creating what one former company official described to me as “the bubble of Bentonville.” It is a regime that leaves lawmakers and low-wage workers alike especially afraid to challenge company policies. 

One former Arkansas lawmaker said policymakers assumed that if they “went against Walmart … there would be some consequences,” speaking about the atmosphere during their time in office in the 2010s.  

Through their respective foundations, Walmart and the Waltons have also poured millions into a dizzying array of private and public institutions across the state, from a downtown café and cocktail bar and well-trafficked library in Bentonville to a slew of municipal police departments and the state Department of Education. While there’s significant evidence that elsewhere in the country, a community’s earnings and employment dips when Walmart comes to town, wages and employment are up in Bentonville—with the important exception of the town’s hourly associates, many of whom continue to work for low wages.

With Walmart’s latest construction project, the gulf between Bentonville’s corporate class and the company’s low-wage workers in the city and beyond has never been wider. In 2019, the company started building a 350-acre campus in Bentonville that will feature 12 big buildings, two large lakes, a network of hiking and biking trails, and a hotel. The project was seamlessly incorporated into Bentonville’s master development plan, a document that was partially funded with a $200,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation and co-authored by a senior town planner who was subsequently hired by the company. (The foundation didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Walmart did not comment on its communication and relationship with the town planner.)

The headquarters is Walmart’s most conspicuous move in its broader fight for the future. The company has begun competing directly with Amazon through Walmart+, a delivery service that includes Paramount Plus streaming access, a nod to Prime. It’s also pioneering automated warehouses and investing in a slew of tech firms. In 2022, two members of the Walton family co-hosted a conference in Bentonville on “the future of mobility” that was described in the press as “Burning Man meets TED meets Davos.”

I visited Bentonville 60 years after Walton founded Walmart and 30 years after he died, to speak with workers and explore the company’s home-state advantages. Walton remains ever present, his weathered face plastered on a big banner hanging in the airport, his name memorialized in the “Sam’s Club” stores that dot the pastoral landscape. Walmart’s 65-acre home office, abutting Sam Walton Boulevard, is adjacent to the cemetery where Walton is buried.

In recent years, Walmart has poached several Bentonville officials, including police officers, an energy specialist, and an I.T. expert. There’s also the city councillor who moonlighted as a Walmart executive, and the former Walmart lawyer and ethics officer who is married to a powerful Benton County official who presides over several essential county functions. Even stranger, Bentonville Mayor Stephanie Orman has often hosted her “Monday Morning Community Leadership” meetings through Walmart’s Zoom account, according to calendars obtained through records requests. (When asked why this happens, a town lawyer responded, “I don’t have any idea.”) 

Across the street from the home office is one of Bentonville’s upscale Walmart outlets. There, I spotted two new forms of mobility: a “drone hub” delivery system and a robotic vending machine that puttered around the parking lot. Inside, the aisles were overflowing with fresh produce, made-to-order sushi, and kombucha, as well as reverent photos of Walton plastered on walls and coolers. Over the P.A. system, a manager graciously thanked the store’s Associate of the Day.

But a few nights later, I came across a frustrated associate, close to retirement age, at another high-end Bentonville supercenter a few miles away. He was collecting carts and declined to give his name. At age 8, he said, he first stocked shelves in a small grocery store owned by his aunt and uncle. His relatives had met Walton at a retail convention and felt he was a man “looking out for the people,” he said.

Some employees are nostalgic for Walton’s few worker-friendly policies, including giving employees time and a half on Sundays and his popular profit-sharing program. Most of those practices no longer exist.

Instead, Walmart’s policy changes in recent decades have left countless associates stuck in poverty. A 2020 government analysis of 15 government agencies in 11 states, including Arkansas, revealed that Walmart has the greatest number of employees subsisting on food stamps and Medicaid. Despite its exceptional poverty rate, Arkansas holds stringent work requirements for food stamp and Medicaid recipients and stopped issuing pandemic-related food stamp aid in June 2021, creating more pressure for people like the cart-collecting employee to stay on the job.

He came out of retirement and took this overnight shift to pay mounting bills, like rent, which had just gone up, and serious medical treatments for his wife. He appreciated his paycheck but said it barely kept him afloat. Walmart raised its national minimum wage to $14 an hour in January last year, then, in September, cut starting pay for several positions by about $1. The worker said his own meager pay raises have failed to keep up with inflation. “My wife and I do struggle,” he said.

As he spoke, his walkie-talkie crackled with work requests. The store needed a deep clean, a tractor trailer needed to be unloaded, and dozens of tubs of pumpkins needed to be emptied out so that the tubs could be used for trash. Many of these tasks, including cart duty, weren’t part of his job description, but the store, he said, was always understaffed. “People won’t come to a place where they don’t feel appreciated,” he explained. 

Walmart declined to comment on his experience.

In the absence of the kind of workplace safety support that OSHA provides, Walmart employees have very few avenues for pushing back against company policies and culture, in part because their employer has staunchly countered union efforts in the last 20 years.

A decade ago, unions were aggressively targeting the company, with employees staging walkouts and protesting in Walmart parking lots. In response, Walmart contracted with Lockheed Martin for surveillance help. According to a 2015 Bloomberg investigation, officials at the defense company monitored activists in Bentonville for Walmart’s 2013 shareholder meeting, among other things. That same year, Walmart began securing permanent injunctions in a few states, including Arkansas in 2015, that ban organizers from store grounds.

“Walmart was able to handcuff us,” said Bianca Agustin, a co-director of United for Respect. “We can’t go into stores, we can’t go in parking lots. How do you organize workers under those restrictions?” 

Nonunionized workplaces like Walmart are far less likely than organized shops to raise wage and safety concerns, mostly due to worries about retaliation, and matters are made worse by Arkansas’s “at-will” employment policy.

“Everybody up here is scared to death because Walmart is the main employer in my community,” one former store manager in Mountain View explained.  

Walmart did not comment on its history of union opposition and the injunctions.

This leaves Walmart workers with scant institutional support, especially in Arkansas. Despite the state’s hostile-to-labor environment, frustrated associates and organizers periodically gather in Bentonville at Walmart’s annual shareholder meetings to protest their working conditions and demand better treatment. In 2022, after Janikka died, organizers first proposed the PERRY Policy, to “make sure no other family has to grieve like we’re grieving,” said Janikka’s sister Nicoshe. 

Some workers have become angry or emotional after getting to Bentonville for these protests, struck by the perfect town that’s been built on their backs. Others can’t help but be awed by Bentonville’s glamor and Sam’s rags-to-riches story. Johnson, the former associate in Little Rock and West Helena, felt underpaid and routinely mistreated by Walmart but was nonetheless overcome during a trip to Bentonville. “It was just a beautiful feeling,” she recalled. “I felt like I was a part of something.” 

Nicoshe herself holds an enduring, if complicated, belief in the Tao of Sam. Last summer, she ventured to Bentonville for a shareholder meeting, where she secured a speaking slot. After the event introduction, CEO Doug McMillon gave a presentation. He congratulated the company on a 9 percent sales jump over the previous year. (McMillon himself made $25.3 million that fiscal year.) 

A few minutes later, a recording that Nicoshe had made for the meeting was played. She described Janikka as “the type of person Sam Walton would have wanted to hear from, because she knew the ins and outs of her store better than anybody.” And she demanded implementation of the PERRY Policy. 

“No one should have to work too sick to function and too scared to call out,” Nicoshe said.

Her words momentarily pierced the bubble of Bentonville, but they ultimately failed to burst it. The proposal failed, along the way allowing for Bentonville’s many pleasant myths to persist. 

On the 16th of most months, she and other family members gather at Janikka’s grave, lay roses on the ground, and pray. Then they drive to the North Little Rock supercenter, where Janikka worked, and gather near its signature blue sign, chanting, sometimes through tears, for change. 

Nicoshe remains intent on passing the PERRY Policy but understands it could take a lifetime. 

“I didn’t realize how much power Walmart had until my sister passed,” she told me. “They got it sewed up from here to Bentonville.”

Paco Alvarez, Emma Davis, and Nina Zweig contributed research for this story, which was produced with support from the Puffin Foundation and the Wayne Barrett Project.