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84 year old grandmother says Walmart fired her over a $1 bill

17 May 2018

The US press coverage of an 84 year old grandmother fired over an incident relating to a $1 bill would lead many to be sympathetic towards the employee and outraged at the conduct of the employer, Alan Finlay explains that by looking at the circumstances and applying the relevant law, the opposite conclusion is in fact reached. 

A TV channel in Texas reported that Frankie Ruffino began working at the  Walmart Super Centre in Drenham, Texas in 2008 as a door greeter but when her health declined, she became a telephone operator at the store.  Ms Ruffino had an unblemished work record.  Ms Ruffino told the TV channel that she used her pay cheques to buy medication and oxygen.

Ms Ruffino says that on 10 October 2017, she had finished her shift at 10pm, locked everything up and on the way out, saw a dollar bill lying on the floor in the middle of an aisle.  Ms Ruffino tucked the dollar into her walker and planned on returning the money to the manager the next day. She came into work the next day, did her regular shift and was told to speak with management at the end of her shift.  The manager then asked her whether she had found some money on the floor, she said that she had put it in her walker and then gave it to the manager. Her employment was terminated under the Company’s Integrity Policy.

The comments posted online were largely sympathetic towards Ms Ruffino and critical of Walmart, considering that she should not have been dismissed from her job and that her long and unblemished service, her age and her medical condition should have been taken into consideration. 

In the UK, a disciplinary procedure would have been required involving an investigation, a formal meeting at which the employee has the right to be accompanied and a right of appeal if a sanction is imposed. An investigation would have looked at the following matters:

  • The Walmart store is open 24 hours a day and Ms Ruffino could not therefore have been the last employee to leave.  Was there someone that she could have handed the dollar bill to that evening?
  • Why did she not immediately return the dollar bill on starting her shift the following day?

If Ms Ruffino’s employment had been terminated on the grounds of theft, the small amount involved, her unblemished record and her personal circumstances could have been mitigating factors.  However, Ms Ruffino’s employment was terminated under Walmart’s Integrity Policy which includes the following statement;-

Our culture of ethics and integrity – the attitudes and conduct that help create an honest, fair and compliant workplace – defines who we are as a company and how we treat one another, our suppliers and our customers.”

Such a policy is more prevalent in America than in the UK where UK Staff Handbooks usually rely on specific policies such as Equal Opportunities, Bullying and Harassment, Bribery and Corruption and a wide definition of gross misconduct. When it comes to integrity, the amount of money involved and other surrounding circumstances may not be relevant.  Either an employee has integrity or he/she does not and in this instance, Walmart were justified in the decision to terminate her employment, regardless of the amount involved. Similar cases have gone to English Employment Tribunals where a cleaner removed a newspaper that had been thrown into the wastepaper bin and another employee had finished a half eaten sandwich left by a customer in the department store’s cafeteria.  In both cases, the dismissals were considered to be justified, especially as a fair disciplinary procedure had been used.

Comments were also made that Walmart had discriminated against Ms Ruffino on the grounds of her age.  Discrimination in the UK is framed by reference to a comparator.  It is not enough that an employee claims they have been treated harshly because they are old.  UK law requires that the employee has to show that they have been treated less favourably than a comparator so in this case, it would be a younger employee.  If Ms Ruffino could show that an employee aged, say, 31, would not have been dismissed in these circumstances, then she would have a case for age discrimination.  In these circumstances, that would be most unlikely as the dismissal was for breach in the Integrity Policy which applies whatever the age of the employee. 

Reading the headlines and viewing the sympathetic TV report would lead one to be sympathetic towards the employee and outraged at the conduct of the employer.  Looking at all the circumstances and applying the relevant law means that one comes to the opposite conclusion. 

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