An employee at a Starbucks in downtown Seattle was fired for taking a wrapped breakfast sandwich out of the trash can after a coworker had thrown it away, according to Q13FOX.com and The Stranger. The employee, Coulson Loptmann, who was unable to work enough hours to pay his bills and survived partly on food stamps, said that he thought that it would not be a problem if he took a discarded sandwich. However, Loptmann’s manager fired him, saying that the company considered his act to be stealing and that it was against policy.
A spokesman for Starbucks stated that it is against the company’s policy for anyone to consume food that has been marked as out of stock after its expiration date and that the policy was in place to protect the health and safety of employees so that they do not eat expired and possibly spoiled products. However, the spokesman did not state that the company considered an employee’s eating a marked-out product to be stealing. In addition, the spokesman said that Starbucks usually would not fire an employee for a “minor infraction” like violating the marked-out food policy unless there were other ongoing performance or discipline issues.
Loptmann states that when he was taught about Starbucks’s policy on marked-out products, he was never told that he was not allowed to eat them. He also said that his manager did not rely on the marked-out food policy, but rather a claim of stealing, in order to fire him.
In cases like this, employees may wonder if they have a claim for wrongful termination. However, Washington is an “at-will” state, which means that in general, an employer may fire an employee at any time, without notice, and without good cause. On the other hand, at-will employment also means that employees can quit their jobs at any time, as well. In cases like Loptmann’s, even if his termination felt unfair, it is probably not unlawful unless the employer violated some sort of state law or public policy, or unless the firing violated an employment agreement.
Some examples of wrongful termination of at-will employment include:
-Any kind of firing that violates nondiscrimination or whistleblower protection laws
-Firing an employee who refuses to do an unlawful act, files a workers’ compensation claim, or even serves jury duty
-Firing an employee when an employment agreement has some sort of guarantee of continued employment
For example, suppose that Loptmann had an employment contract that stated that Starbucks could only fire him for just cause or after certain procedures. If the employment contract or written policies did not mention eating marked-out food, or if the manager did not follow the correct procedures, that could possibly give rise to a wrongful termination case.
Although Washington is an employment-at-will state, there are still times when an employer cannot fire an employee. For more information about wrongful termination, contact an employment lawyer.