WEST PLAINS, MO. • Frank Swanson loved to hug his Walmart customers, specifically the women. He said it was his way of saying “thank you for your business.”
But on Saturday, three weeks shy of his 20th anniversary with the store, he gave his last hug. Three of his bosses called him into an office. The hugs were inappropriate, they said. They also said he broke store policy by selling a gallon jug of tea 50 cents cheaper than the list price. Such a transaction is allowed if the customer has a circular from a competitor showing that they are selling an item for less. But in this instance, Swanson took the customer at her word.
Swanson’s bosses wrote him a check for unused vacation and personal days and showed him the door.
Word of his firing hit social media, and as things can often do when they hit the Internet, support came fast and furious for Swanson, along with stinging commentary for the country’s largest retailer. A Facebook page, Hugs for Frank, was set up, inviting people to a protest outside the store this Saturday. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 1,000 people had indicated they planned to attend.
“Walmart was blessed to have Frank as an employee, not the other way around,” store customer Melanie Vincent said in a Facebook post. “I sure hope another business will leap at the chance to hire Frank so that they can also be blessed. Whoever made this decision at Walmart made a very bad mistake, and I hope Walmart corporate will see that.”
The company released a statement, saying, in part, that “part of being a cashier is making sure customers are paying for their merchandise before they leave the store; in many instances, this was not happening.” As a result, Swanson was let go.
Swanson, 52, said Tuesday that Walmart made it sound as if he had been letting customers walk out without paying for items, something he would never do. But he did admit to not following store policy, which requires that the customer present a competitor’s ad showing the cheaper price. At that point, Walmart will sell the product for the lesser amount.
“They said I was making the price up out of my head. They made it sound like I was giving groceries away,” Swanson said.
Swanson also said managers had warned him about the hugging, which he said he started back in November, around Thanksgiving. After about three months, he said, managers told him he had to stop giving hugs without asking permission from the customer first. From January until his firing, he said, that’s what he did.
Though the online support for Swanson has been overwhelming, not everyone came to his side.
“My husband was a department manager for Walmart,” Stacy McCallister said on Facebook. “He has told Frank not to be hugging on people. He even heard Frank joking around with customers about not going to give them their change back until he got a hug from them.
“My husband has also heard other people try to tell Frank that he was going to get into trouble with this. Whether anyone likes it or not, under normal circumstances, that is considered sexual harassment.”
Under normal circumstances, there would probably not be such a groundswell of support. But Swanson is not your typical 52-year-old man.
When he was in the eighth grade, and a star defensive football player, he and his younger brother, Drexel, were riding in the back of their grandfather’s pickup after delivering a load of wood.
The brothers, standing up in the back of the truck, began throwing the leftover wood at signs alongside the highway. Frank fell out, fracturing his skull. He was in a coma for six weeks. The accident left him with brain damage and partial paralysis on his right side. He could no longer play football, but he became the team manager for the next four years.
“My brother doesn’t have a mean bone in his body,” Drexel Swanson said in a Facebook post calling for a boycott of the West Plains Walmart. “His purpose in life since his accident has always been to make other people feel good about (themselves) and to bring a smile to their face.
“He loves to hug people, especially the older generation. He says they don’t get enough hugs in their life.”
Frank said Tuesday afternoon that he had just finished a job interview at the Ramey’s supermarket store. It went well, and he was en route to Hirsch Feed and Farm Supply for another interview. He is confident he will get a job soon, but he is following Drexel’s advice to hold out for the best offer.
“There’s going to be a picket line in front of the store on Saturday. I can’t believe they are going to do that,” Frank said of his supporters.
Asked if he supported the protest, Frank hesitated.
“I guess,” he said. “There will be hot dogs and hamburgers.”