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Skeptics suspicious of sudden Walmart closures, claims of plumbing issues

"I just find what's going on very odd," said Commissioner Victor Crist, who represents a Florida district where one of the stores closed.

By Doug G. Ware

LOS ANGELES, April 18 (UPI) -- Multiple Walmart stores across the United States caught employees and customers off-guard this week when the massive retail chain abruptly shut down some of its stores and laid off more than 2,000 workers.

Customers and employees showed up to a location in Pico Rivera, Calif. on Monday to find locked doors and a sign that read simply, "closed indefinitely." For the store's near 550 workers, it was quite a shock.

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As the workers scratched their heads, similar scenarios played out almost simultaneously across the United States -- in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma -- where others learned their same fate. What, they wondered, would cause Walmart to shut down their store so suddenly?

Eventually, the answer was given. But it only compounded the confusion.

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The Arkansas-based company subsequently announced that the closures were due to plumbing problems, and would require about six months to repair.

"The issues mostly relate to clogs and water leaks in the plumbing - we have had persistent issues over the last several years," a Walmart spokesperson said.

But that wasn't the worst of it. Coinciding with the closures, about 2,200 Walmart employees also lost their jobs -- laid off.

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"Everybody just panicked and started crying," Venanzi Luna, a manager at the Pico Rivera location, said in a CNN Money report.

In the meantime, displaced workers at the affected locations will be put on paid leave for two months and can try to transfer to another Walmart. Those still jobless on June 19 might be eligible for severance, CNN's report said.

In all, five locations were closed -- and a Walmart spokesperson said all five have had severe plumbing troubles, but none are related.

However, ABC Action News in Tampa, Fla., has reported that none of the closed stores have asked their respective cities for any building permits -- something experts say is necessary to fix any kind of major plumbing issue.

"This is the first time we're hearing of their sewer problems," Pico Rivera city manager Rene Bobadilla said.

"We are anxious to learn exactly what they're planning," another Pico Rivera manager, James Enriquez, added. "My building official walked out there and didn't see any work being done."

Therefore, skeptics wonder, are the stores closing for another reason? Some believe that yes, in fact, they are.

Employees of the Pico Rivera location fear that the sudden shutdown is nothing less than retaliation by Walmart for recent demonstrations asking for higher pay. Workers at that particular store have been very active in the movement, and even spearheaded one of the first protests in 2012.

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The demand for higher wages for workers in the fast food and retail industries has been a hot topic lately. Earlier this week, thousands in cities across the nation rallied in the "Fight for $15" -- and just two months ago, Walmart announced it was giving 500,000 of its employees a raise.

In 2013, some Walmart workers and union members accused the chain of retaliating against labor organizers.

"People are scared because they see how Walmart retaliates. Not everyone has spoken out because of the reality of losing their jobs," union member and Walmart employee Colby Harris said at the time.

Walmart, though, denies that the closures are for any reason other than plumbing.

"We understand this decision has been difficult on our associates and our customers and we aim to reopen these stores as soon as these issues are resolved," a spokesperson said.

In addition to the California location, the other affected stores are in Brandon, Fla., Livingston, Texas, Midland, Texas and Tulsa, Okla.

The sudden closures, however, didn't just catch employees and customers off-guard. At a Texas location, Liberty Tax Service -- which is a common presence in numerous U.S. Walmarts -- was forced to hastily vacate its kiosk it rents in the store.

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A Liberty tax professional there, who wished to be unnamed, said she was forced to vacate the Walmart on April 13 -- two days before the tax-filing deadline, naturally a very busy time for companies like hers. Further, she worried that clients wouldn't know how to reach her at another location, which might potentially put their tax-filings in jeopardy.

Further, the tax professional said she hasn't witnessed a single plumbing problem in the Texas store since she started working at Liberty's kiosk there three years ago.

At the Brandon, Fla., location, two plumbing technicians who have worked extensively in that store said they don't buy it, either.

"I've done a lot of maintenance work out there. I go out there and I unclog the drains, but there's been no major problems there. It's all been normal stuff that we do at every store," plumber Codi Bauer said in a WFLA-TV report.

Some skeptics say the company's official reason for the closures simply isn't believable. If plumbing was indeed the reason for the move, they ask, why then is Walmart forcing affected employees to find other jobs -- and making them re-apply for their old positions once the locations reopen?

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"I went to the meeting [Tuesday] morning, they would not give me an exact answer to anything," a laid-off worker in Tulsa said in a report by CBS affiliate KOTV-TV.

Another red flag, some say, is the fact that each of the stores seemed to be unusually well-prepared for the closures -- which would not be the case if abrupt plumbing problems triggered the sudden shutdowns.

"They had too many things in place," Florida worker Diane Hill told ABC 10 News in Tampa. "The higher-ups knew. It's us lower folks on the totem pole that didn't know."

Laid off workers from the Florida location also claimed to 10 News that Walmart instructed them not to speak to the press.

Commissioner Victor Crist, who represents the district in which the Florida Walmart closed, is also curious and has asked Walmart to see the plumbing problems it's referring to.

"I just find what's going on very odd," he said. "I am a little curious as to why permits have not been pulled. If you want to minimize downtime you do that by doing those things in advance."

Crist said Walmart has not yet responded to his request.

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"I've been here ten years with this Walmart. This is my family, it's my home, and the customers are family here," Tulsa employee Cindy Burton said. "We know each and every one of them, some of them we know by name. This is home.

"We are all finding places to go and we are trying to call. It's all we can do right now, is just try to find placement so we can all keep our job ... We were all in shock. I cried a lot, but we will all get through it."

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