The first time we spoke, Susie told me her boyfriend had just been hospitalized, and a part of her wanted to go to the hospital too. There were multiple reasons why. She wanted to be there for him, of course, but she also had pneumonia herself and needed medical care. Still, the thought of staying there left her worrying about who’d mind their apartment in her absence.
“I need to take care of the dogs, the birds,” she said. “I was running around today and didn’t have him helping me.”
The 51-year-old has been working with her boyfriend as a Walmart cashier in Illinois for the last three years, but in mid-January she was abruptly placed on medical leave until she got better. With her boyfriend sick too, it was a particularly unwelcome departure from their busy routine, Susie said. The couple both work at Walmart, which Susie enjoys, she told VICE. “Everybody’s nice, it’s like a family. I like everything about Walmart,” she said.
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But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make ends meet. Susie works four days a week at a rate of $13 an hour—up from $11 when she started—and has to spend much of her free time traveling to the doctor by bus, since she doesn’t have a car. She told VICE she lives with depression, anxiety, and mental and physical disabilities. Susie also has accumulated a substantial amount of debt over the years, she says, though she declined to say how much, most of it through a combination of medical bills and online shopping.
Today, she receives money through Social Security Disability Insurance, but still finds it hard to stay afloat, let alone start paying down her debt.
Susie—who asked to use only her first name and not disclose the city she lives in, to protect her privacy—walked VICE through this atypical moment in her life, both during her medical leave and when she returned to work. Her days are quiet right now. She works when she’s able, but otherwise rests, goes to appointments, plays with her dog, and dreams of affording a bigger apartment, buying a car and traveling. But those goals feel far out of reach at the moment.
“It’s hard to save money and do the things that we would love to do,” she said.
Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Friday, late January
Today I called in sick because of having pneumonia. I had to call a 1-800 number to put in that I was on a leave of absence. That’s one good thing about Walmart, people with disabilities and other people—they give them a number to call if they need to take a leave of absence. _[Editor’s note: The leave of absence is_ a short-term disability program administered by a company called Sedgwick that partners with Walmart.]
The following Monday
I called and extended my medical leave [for about two more weeks]. All I need is for the doctor to send over the paperwork. Pneumonia is hard to get rid of, because I also have diabetes and hypothyroidism. Plus, the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death is coming up. It’s been hard dealing with losing her and working too.
I went to Walmart today to get my medication too. The manager knows I’m taking medical leave. My boyfriend and I picked up some food and then we came home and I rested all day. Tomorrow I’m going to see my doctor and have her fill out those forms for Sedgwick so they can be approved.
Daily life is a struggle for me at times, and it can be stressful going to a lot of doctor appointments too. The hardest part is I don’t know how to drive a car, plus I don’t have money to buy a car or learn how. During the winter months, I have to take public transportation, which isn’t great here. I wish I had a car to drive. I could go see my sister and do more things with my boyfriend. Not feeling well at times is a big struggle too.
Last night, I was feeling my depression. We need a bigger apartment. Right now we’re in a one-bedroom but we don’t have the money to move. My sister has helped us so much with money that we can’t ask her. I don’t even know how to thank her for all she has done.
It’s hard when your main income is Social Security and you get paid from your job every two weeks. You have bills to pay off, you have to buy food, keep food in the house, buy food for your pets. We manage but it’s still hard.
Early February, Sunday night
Today is the last day of my medical leave. I go back to work tomorrow. I am a little nervous about having to go back, and having to deal with stressful situations at work. I get stressed out easily and anxious easily too when I’m at work. I try to find ways to cope with it, but it’s hard.
All my life I’ve had difficulty making friends. This one girl, she just used me and my boyfriend to where I became depressed. Having more girlfriends, I’d be able to do more things and talk to them about stuff.
I came in early to work so I can relax and get myself focused today. I’m on the register, working 10 to 5. It’s going okay. I get an hour lunch break because I’m working over six hours. Five hours, you only get a 15-minute break.
Today was not that stressful. I enjoy working with customers and finding things for them and talking to them at times. I also enjoy checking customers out at the register and smiling and telling them to have a great day. I enjoy meeting new people.
I don’t clock in until 10 today, then I work until 4:45pm. This is a better schedule for me, coming in at 10 and getting off at 5pm. It was so hard for me to get up early to come in at 7 in the morning, and my health requires that I get more sleep. This schedule is perfect for me.
Yesterday I got a little stressed out at work because I started to not feel so good. But I made it through. Today is my day off. Sometimes I guess what stresses me out is when I’m not feeling good, and I start feeling sick. Otherwise everything went OK on those first two days back.
I called in today using my intermittent leave. I’ve been having nose bleeds and I’m just not feeling too well. I don’t know if I’m having allergies to my pets or what could be making my nose bleed.
This is why I like working at Walmart. Other places don’t have intermittent leave for people who have health issues.
Right now, my goal is to work on my health and get my weight back down to normal. I decided to cut my days at work. I’m going to be on four days a week and off three. That’ll be good for me, for my health.
Yesterday and the day before, I was feeling the stress of working and my anxieties got to me. I have a hard time dealing with stress, and I get tired easily and feel so worn out.
Walmart has key dates where we have to be at work: St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Memorial Day, Mother’s Day, and Fourth of July. If we’re not at work on those key dates, we get two points against us. If you get five points or more they fire you. I don’t feel like the points system is a good idea. Other jobs don’t have that. I feel like a lot of workers just take off and abuse the system.
My boyfriend and I have the intermittent leave for people who have chronic health issues, and that keeps us from having points. It helps us save our jobs. I could have lost my job when I first started working there because my points had gone above five.
But this nice manager told me about Sedgwick and told me to see if it could help. A lot of employees do not have that and they have to use paid time off to help cover them for the points they get.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.