A San Mateo Safeway may regret their decision to fire an employee who stopped a $500 shoplifting attempt, and then deny that employee unemployment benefits, because a state board ruled they have to pay the unemployment, and now a wrongful termination suit is looming.

The grocery chain Safeway has a clean-up on Aisle Seven, at least from an employment law standpoint. You’d think that longtime, 22-year Safeway employee Antoinette Baez would have been named Employee of the Month in February 2023, when she thwarted a shoplifter attempting to steal roughly $500 of groceries from the store on De Anza Boulevard in San Mateo. And Baez even took a punch from that shoplifter, whom she did eventually get to leave the store, and her store manager said she acted appropriately after reviewing video of the incident.  

But the higher-ups at Safeway’s corporate offices apparently did not agree. As KPIX reports, Safeway fired Baez, and even denied her unemployment benefits afterward.

Why did Safeway fire Baez? "Three weeks later, there was an anonymous phone call complaining about her," her attorney Neil Eisenberg told KPIX. "It went to the Safeway board of directors, and in their infinite wisdom, they fired her because she touched the bag."

The company has a policy banning physical contact with customers even if they are committing a crime.

Moreover, the grocery chain denied Baez’s unemployment claims. “Safeway refused to pay unemployment benefits, claiming Baez was fired for misconduct,” as KPIX notes. “So, after 22 years of service, the single mother has been fighting a multi-billion-dollar corporation to collect $450 a week in benefits.”

Baez and her attorney appealed the decision to the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, where they were awarded the lost unemployment benefits. "The claimant was aware of the employer's customer service shoplifting policy,” administrative law judge K.A. Duncan wrote in the ruling. “She was not aware she could be terminated for performing her duties, while on or off the clock, and without a warning."

Safeway is not appealing that ruling, so Baez will get her unemployment benefits, plus lost benefits for the period Safeway wasn’t paying. But the grocery chain may not be out of the woods on this one yet, as Baez’s attorney is also vowing to file a wrongful termination lawsuit.

Related: SFPD Touts 60 Arrests In New Retail Shoplifting Crackdown [SFist]

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