by Cathy Free 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.
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. 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.