Whole Foods fired Ralph Reese for taking a tuna fish sandwich. But was it misconduct? It is a question that matters. Anyone fired for misconduct is denied unemployment benefits.
Whole Foods argued that Mr. Reese, 57, of Queens, tried to steal a sandwich by taking it from the trash at the end of his shift as a deli clerk at the Union Square Whole Foods on Nov. 9. The company’s policy is that food cannot be taken without being paid for, though employees receive a 20 percent discount.
“I cannot comment specifically on this case, on this person, and the conditions of his employment by Whole Foods,” said Libba Letton, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods. But she did say, “Whole Foods Markets has a program that team members are encouraged to try our different products.”
She said the program helps the employees learn more about the products so they can be of more help to customers. But there is a defined procedure, she said: They must ask their supervisor, the food is logged and accounted for, and the servings are typically sample-size.
“Any variation from this procedure would be taken very seriously,” Ms. Letton said.
Initially, New York State ruled that the tuna sandwich episode was misconduct, based on Whole Foods’ statement about the trash. In New York, as in other states, employers’ unemployment insurance rates are based on the amount of the benefits their former workers collect [pdf] — giving them an incentive to limit the number of employees who receive unemployment.
Mr. Reese challenged the ruling in January. “I knew what they said was wrong,” said Mr. Reese, who earned $11.50 an hour.
His version of the story: He was throwing out 30 sandwiches at the end of the shift, and he put the tuna sandwich aside on the counter in plain view. When the supervisor confronted him about it, he said it was going to be thrown out and he was going to eat it.
The supervisor then threw the sandwich out.
Two days later, Mr. Reese was fired.