Would You Fire Someone for Taking Garbage?
The Iowa Court of Appeals upheld a decision to deny unemployment benefits to a convenience store employee who was fired for taking soup from the dumpster.
The company, an Iowa-based chain of franchises called Casey's General Stores, has a policy that employees cannot remove any company property from the stores without paying for it—including out-of-date, no-longer-saleable items such as doughnuts and soup.
In December of 2009, Pamela Tompkins-Kutcher, a full-time Casey's cashier since May of 2006, took some two-day old soup—referred to in the court papers as "abandoned soup"—out to the dumpster. She immediately took it out and put it in her car to take home and feed to her dog. (Per court papers, the employer valued the soup at $10.)
When questioned by her employer, she admitted she had taken it and immediately was fired. Under Iowa law, an employee is not eligible for unemployment benefits if the agency finds the employee was terminated for misconduct.
Casey's—which appeared on Inc.'s list of small companies going public in 1983—appealed when Tompkins-Kutcher was awarded unemployment benefits, and an administrative law judge ruled she'd been terminated for improper conduct and should not receive benefits. Last week, the Iowa Court of Appeals upheld the decision.
Upon her employment, Tompkins-Kutcher received an employee handbook detailing the company's policy, which she signed for but claims she did not read. In August of 2009, she also attended an employee meeting where the company's "wasted food" policy was discussed; employees were told that if they wanted wasted food, they had to buy it. (Tompkins-Kutcher said she didn't pay attention at the meeting.) The woman leading the meeting, who served as the employer's witness, said no employee had ever approached her about buying wasted soup; only the day-old doughnuts sold to customers.
Tompkins-Kutcher argued that what she did was not misconduct because Casey's had no interest in the wasted soup—that it was garbage—and that she lacked the intent to harm her employer.
But the decision to deny her unemployment benefits doesn't turn on whether the soup was garbage, noted the appeals court. She violated the company policy that all items removed from the store must be paid for, and "intentionally disregarded the standards of behavior the employer had a right to expect of its employees."
Inc. contributing editor Courtney Rubin was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.