Fired for 'Price-Matching' and Giving Hugs, Disabled Walmart Cashier Is Embraced by His Missouri Community

"I'm stunned and shocked – it's nice to have so many friends," Frank, who was paralyzed on his right side and suffered brain damage after an accident as a teenager, tells PEOPLE.

Photo: Courtesy the Swanson family

For more than 20 years, Frank Swanson was a popular fixture at the Walmart in West Plains, Missouri, where he always rang up customers with a smile, took money out of his own pocket if somebody was a few dollars short, and was quick to offer a warm hug if anyone appeared to be having a bad day.

Now the partially-paralyzed and intellectually-disabled 52-year-old cashier is receiving hugs, letters of support and donations from customers, after he was called to the store manager’s office on April 2 and fired for excessive price-matching and for hugging too many people, which slowed down his line. Because it wasn’t the first time he’d been warned about it, an assistant manager felt he was justified in letting Frank go.

What nobody anticipated, though, was the firestorm of outrage that has erupted in West Plains and surrounding communities.

As word of Frank’s firing spread on social media, a Hugs for Frank Facebook page went up and a rally was held on April 9 in the Walmart parking lot, with an estimated 700 people showing up to hug the fired cashier and express their love and support.

“I’m stunned and shocked – it’s nice to have so many friends,” Frank, who was paralyzed on his right side and suffered brain damage after an accident as a teenager, tells PEOPLE. “They can’t believe that I was fired. And neither can I.”

“What Walmart did to Frank was disgraceful,” says Jess Levin, communications manager for Making Change at Walmart, a coalition seeking better working conditions at the country’s largest employer. “Walmart needs to apologize to him, as well as the entire West Plains community.”

Although Walmart officials won’t go into specifics about the case, corporate spokesperson Kory Lundberg says Frank was warned repeatedly before he was terminated.

“Letting an associate go is never easy,” Lundberg tells PEOPLE. “It is important to note that we have a progressive discipline policy where performance issues move an associate to the next step. For this associate, point-of-sale policies had not been followed in some instances. A recent violation of those policies moved the associate to the final step of our discipline process, resulting in his dismissal.”

Frank, who was fired three weeks shy of his 20th anniversary with Walmart, now plans to challenge his termination under the Missouri Human Rights Act, with help from his attorney, Benjamin Stringer. If an investigation by the Missouri Commission on Human Rights finds that Frank’s disability was possibly not accommodated by Walmart, a “right to sue” letter will be issued, allowing him to file a civil lawsuit.

Disabled from a traumatic brain injury after falling off his grandfather’s pickup truck when he was in the 8th grade, “Frank was driven to overcome the effects of his injury and made a career working at his local Walmart,” says Stringer, who practices in Springfield, Missouri.

“When Frank was working, his register was known for its long lines of happy customers,” Stringer tells PEOPLE. “Many sought out Frank because of his positive demeanor, love for others and his hugs. It doesn’t make any sense when you step back and look at what Walmart has done by terminating an employee with so much community support.”

One of those loyal customers was Ron Becker of Caulfield, Missouri, who recalls getting candy hand-outs from Frank after school.

“Frank just loved to see people happy – man, boy, woman, girl, or the elderly,” Becker wrote on the “Hugs for Frank” page. “He loved every customer. He always did something to brighten your day.”

“Walmart was blessed to have Frank as an employee, not the other way around,” adds another customer, Melanie Vincent. “Whoever made this decision at Walmart made a very bad mistake.”

A star defensive player on his school’s football team before he was injured, Frank could have easily lived off disability checks instead of working for $13.65 an hour at Walmart, says his brother, Drexel Swanson, 50.

“But he wanted to contribute to the community and he has a soft spot for people, especially the elderly,” Drexel tells PEOPLE. “He won over the community one hug at a time.”

When he was reprimanded by his bosses for hugging customers, Frank began asking people for their permission first, Drexel says. “For some people, it might be the only hug they got all week,” he says. “They loved Frank for caring.”

In spite of his brain injury, his brother is a whiz with numbers, adds Drexel, and he regularly memorized competitors’ ads so he could do “price matches” for customers.

That talent is one reason why Frank was ultimately fired, when he couldn’t produce a competing store’s ad after selling a bottle of iced tea to a customer for 80 cents below Walmart’s price. Although Frank drove to a neighboring community and brought back a copy of the ad, the store wouldn’t give him his job back.

“I felt terrible – I was numb,” Frank tells PEOPLE. “Fired over the price of tea and hugging people. I couldn’t believe it.”

After the rally, where he was surrounded by customers waving “Be Like Frank” signs, Frank estimated he’d given more than 500 hugs and autographed several dozen T-shirts. Among his fans were several employees from a rival grocery store in town, Ramie’s Supermarket.

“I went in and applied for a job and they hired me,” Frank tells PEOPLE. “So anyone who needs a hug knows where to find me.”

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