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San Mateo Safeway employee fired for stopping shoplifter had to fight to get unemployment

Judge rules in favor of 22-year San Mateo Safeway employee fired for stopping shoplifter
Judge rules in favor of 22-year San Mateo Safeway employee fired for stopping shoplifter 03:35

A woman who worked for Safeway for 22 years had to enter a legal battle with the company to get unemployment after they fired her for stopping a shoplifter.

For 22 years, Antoinette Baez worked at the De Anza Boulevard Safeway store in San Mateo, and her attorney, Neil Eisenberg, said she knew the company's policy about not touching or pursuing people trying to shoplift.

"She had that drilled into her. She knew that you don't do that," said Eisenberg. "And she also was told, 'Thou shall not steal.'"  

On Feb. 2, 2023, Baez noticed a woman with about $500 in groceries at the self-checkout machines. She offered to help her but was refused.

Later, after clocking out, she noticed that the woman was trying to leave without paying and tried to stop her by holding on to the bags she was carrying.  As the tug-of-war continued, another worker came to help and after the woman threw a punch at her, she finally left the store.  

After reviewing the incident, her store manager said Baez acted appropriately.

"Three weeks later, there was an anonymous phone call complaining about her," said Eisenberg.  "It went to the Safeway board of directors, and in their infinite wisdom, they fired her because she touched the bag."

After her termination, Safeway refused to pay unemployment benefits, claiming Baez was fired for misconduct.  So, after 22 years of service, the single mother has been fighting a multi-billion-dollar corporation to collect $450 a week in benefits.

"Well, I've been in practice for 54 years," said Eisenberg, "and this is the cruelest case I've ever seen involving an employee."

The case ended up before the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, and in her ruling, administrative law judge, K.A. Duncan, wrote, "The claimant was aware of the employer's customer service shoplifting policy. She was not aware she could be terminated for performing her duties, while on or off the clock, and without a warning."

"They said she didn't know she could be fired for doing her job," said Eisenberg.

Safeway did not appeal, so the decision is now final, and the company will have to pay lost unemployment benefits.  But the case has some people, like shopper Anne Lynde, wondering if policies like Safeway's are sending a message that encourages thievery.

"They want to protect the safety of the companies, and I understand that, as well," she said.  "But it comes at a cost to all of us. Because we're all going to pay the higher prices for all the merchandise that gets shoplifted. And that eventually comes down to all of us."

"Yeah," said Eisenberg, "and if you're stealing $500 worth of groceries once a week, you actually make more money than the person that Safeway has fired. Basically, the moral of the story is it makes way more sense to steal from Safeway than to work for Safeway."

Eisenberg said he will be filing a wrongful termination lawsuit. Safeway did not return any of our requests for comment.  Baez last worked on March 6 of last year.  She is still trying to find another job.  

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