One year ago feels like yesterday to Nicoshe James.
It was Jan. 16, 2022, that James was told that her sister, Janikka Perry, worked her entire shift and was left in pain for nearly two hours in the bathroom of a North Little Rock Walmart. One year ago that James received a call that her 38-year-old sister was found lying in a puddle of her own blood and vomit. One year ago that James watched as her sister, a single mother of two boys, was wheeled out of a hospital in a body bag.
“Jan. 16 was not supposed to be my sister’s death date,” James, 35, said. “The job replaced her, but we can’t replace her.”
In the wake of Perry’s death, her family has worked to spread the word of her story to ensure that no other Walmart associate experiences a similar tragedy. Together, the family gathers outside of the North Little Rock Walmart on the 16th day of every month in memory of their sister, daughter, mother and friend. They hold a banner that reads, “No more Walmart associates should be left to die #Justice4Janikka.”
James said that returning to the place of her sister’s death takes a toll on the family. “It’s like getting the wind knocked out of you and not catching your breath again,” she said.
For the one-year anniversary Monday, the family planned a free memorial dinner at McBee’s Coffee and Carwash at 5 p.m. “to celebrate the workers who make our society run.” All are invited for a hot meal of chicken, greens and mac and cheese.
The life and death of Janikka Perry
James described her older sister as a great mother and grandmother, a hard worker and her prayer warrior. The two had a tight bond; they always talked on the phone and the whole family met weekly at their mom’s place for a cook-out. The oldest daughter in a family of five girls, Perry acted as the family’s protector — “whatever we couldn’t handle, she handled for us,” James said.
She said that losing Perry is the worst pain she’s ever felt.
“She was just the type of person that would help anybody,” James said of her late sister. “She would give you her last, and you wouldn’t know it was her last. That’s all she ever did was give out love.”
Perry’s mother, Wanda Fay Moseby, shared her thoughts in writing.
“This year the holidays were an incredibly difficult time for my family,” Moseby wrote. “It was the first Christmas without my daughter, Janikka Perry, and it was the first Christmas her children had without their mother. Now we are approaching the one year anniversary of her death, and despite our best efforts, we still do not have justice or closure.”
A few years before her death, Perry was diagnosed with having congestive heart failure, James said. The Perry family said that the management at Walmart was aware of this, as she had shown evidence of her condition before. James said that Perry was also feeling sick on the day of her death.
After she was found in the bathroom, Perry was transported to the Sherwood CHI St. Vincent hospital nearly three miles away from the Walmart, rather than the Baptist Health Medical Center one mile away, James said.
The family’s healing process after losing Perry has been difficult. Though James has taken the role of the mouthpiece to spread her sister’s story, she said that she’s been in a dark place. Leaning on family during this time is hard, too, because everyone is dealing with the loss in a different way, James said.
“It pains and angers me that my daughter died the way she did — alone and calling out for help,” Moseby wrote. “Some may ask why Janikka did not leave work when she began to feel unwell, but I know why. She was afraid of losing a paycheck, or even her job, for putting her health first. This kind of fear, which comes from hourly workers’ economic uncertainty, is not uncommon.”
The Perry family believes that the death could have been avoided, and that Walmart needs to be held accountable. James said that after the death, Walmart issued short responses of condolences and an unsatisfactory food delivery to Moseby’s home. The Walmart staff denied the family the ability to view the security footage of Perry’s final hours of life. Instead, James said the family was told that several customers went in and out of the bathroom and Perry had yelled for help, but no one alerted officials until nearly two hours later.
Calls made directly to the North Little Rock Walmart management were rerouted multiple times and dropped. Eventually, one manager at the North Little Rock Walmart named Courtney — who refused to give her full name — said that the company’s policy did not allow questions from reporters. Walmart’s primary media number instructs callers to submit forms online; leaving a message is not possible. Three media inquiries submitted through the online portal were ignored.
“[As] many Walmart associates can tell you, Walmart is a billion-dollar corporation built on a culture of fear and intimidation of its employees,” Moseby said. “Walmart pretends to cherish family values — but what about my family?”
In the summer of 2022, the Perry family started working with United for Respect, a nonprofit that works to improve the lives of retail workers. Together, they drafted the PERRY Policy, which James took to the 2022 Walmart shareholders meeting and urged the company’s board to adopt. The policy outlines protections for Walmart associates including allotted paid sick time, an equal voice on the job, real emergency plans, a culture that invites rest and recovery and yearly reviews with shareholders.
“We know from talking to associates around the country, that what happened to Janikka — while probably in its most extreme callousness on the part of Walmart — is really part of a bigger problem of how the company treats associates,” said Bianca Agustin, the corporate accountability director for United for Respect.
Fighting for improved conditions for retail workers is something the family is doing to make sure Perry’s situation isn’t repeated. James said that the family has chosen to travel farther for groceries and goods that aren’t from Walmart — a small but important aspect of honoring their loved one.
United for Respect is also working on resolutions to push for changes through a racial equality audit and a third-party review on workplace safety policies. The drafted resolutions were sent to be reviewed at the company’s 2023 shareholders’ meeting.
“Walmart has faced negative media coverage related to claims of discrimination including racial profiling and discriminatory hiring, recruitment and promotion practices,” according to one resolution. “Walmart is also subject to criticism for poor working conditions and paying low wages. The Company does not disclose median or adjusted racial pay gaps.”
The Perry family also works with local organizations to spread their story. Greg Moore with the Central Arkansas Democratic Socialists of America said that he or a different member from the organization attends the vigil every month. Moore leads chants like “Walmart, Walmart, you’re no good. Treat your workers like you should” and “Walmart, Walmart, you can’t hide. We can see your greedy side.”
Moore said that the Perry family is the backbone of everything, but he helps to amplify their voices and provide things like signs, candles and additional structure. He also works to bring speakers to the vigils to further push for workers’ protections. Toney Orr, the field director for United Labor Unions Local 100, spoke at the vigil in April 2022.
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Arkansas deficient in worker protection laws
Arkansas is a right-to-work state, which means that unions are scarce and many workplace protections are not required by law. Retail employers may take advantage of this by not allotting sick time, paid time off, proper pay for overtime work or skew working hours as disciplinary action. Orr said that Walmart falls under the umbrella of doing all of these to its associates.
United Labor Unions is a community based organization that focuses on representing low-and-middle-income workers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. From weathercasters, garbage service workers and government employees, Orr said that the organization works with a large variety of folks.
In general, Orr said that the worker protections in Arkansas are “abysmal. Plain and simple, they are just terrible.” These problems have been ongoing for decades, and without set regulations, workers are left scraping to make ends meet with one or multiple jobs, he said. In some cases, Walmart associates know they’re being treated unfairly, but stay with the company because they need to put food on the table.
Working to get change enacted is not easy, either. United for Respect has a plethora of anecdotal evidence from workers about neglect. Orr said that it would have to take existing workers and regular customers to a company like Walmart to strike and impact day-to-day operations before policy changed. Without union protection, this is an unlikely move for Arkansas workers.
Looking to legislators in Arkansas is dismal, too, Orr said. With Governor Sanders at the helm, Orr said he believes that her agenda and policies are going to be harmful to workers. On her first day in office, Sanders signed seven executive orders including one that intensified the process for verifying unemployment.
“She’s not going to be favorable to workers; that’s not in her wheelhouse,” Orr said. “She’s following the administration that she used to be a part of and the ideas of that administration and she’s bringing it here in Arkansas.”