Thomas Smith, 52, had been earning $9 an hour at an upstate New York Walmart for less than three months when his manager terminated him over the cans. Smith was in charge of rounding up shopping carts from the lot outside the store, and started collecting trash from the lot while making his rounds. After storing up cans for a couple months, he recycled them in the store’s machines in early November. He got $5.10 for them.
Then he got fired. His manager told Smith his actions were “tantamount to theft of Walmart property,” the Albany Times Union reports, and said he would have to repay the $5.10 or lose his job. Smith, who commuted an hour by bus from Albany for the job, returned to the store two days later with the cash. But he’d already been fired.
“I didn’t know you couldn’t take empties left behind. They were garbage. I didn’t even get a chance to explain myself,” Smith told the paper. He also said his manager told him that a coworker who’d been caught stealing cash from a store register was allowed to keep her job because she repaid the theft and “because she has five kids.”
That thief was white. Smith collected trash while black.
The store manager who made the decision refused to speak with the Times-Union, and a Walmart spokesman told the paper it does not comment on personnel matters. After the story got picked up by local TV news, a company representative claimed Smith had admitted to stealing from inside the store itself. “They certainly didn’t indicate that both when I talked to them and our attorney talked to them,” Alice Green of the Center for Law and Justice said of that claim. Smith says he wrote out a statement for managers acknowledging he’d recycled the cans and no more.
Smith’s story has prompted strangers to send money through the crowdfunding site GoFundMe. So far the effort has collected more than $2,200 – an amount Smith would’ve had to work more than six weeks at full-time hours to earn.
While going viral for his sudden termination from a low-wage job has provided some short-term help, Smith will likely still have a hard time getting back on his feet. He was paroled in May after more than a dozen years in prison for armed robbery. He’d spent four months homeless after his release before finding housing through a charitable group. The Walmart job would have been one of his first, if not his very first, opportunities since his release for earning a living and achieving a degree of economic independence.
Formerly incarcerated people face immense hurdles to re-entering society and the workforce. Trust is hard to come by. Many job applications feature a check-box requiring applicants to volunteer information about their criminal history, which generally ruins their chances of even getting an interview.
The rejection naturally encourages desperate people to return to criminal activity for an income, as Glenn Martin, who now runs a non-profit that works with the formerly incarcerated and wasturned away from 50 different jobs in the month after his own release from prison, has described. Activists like Martin say efforts to reform the criminal justice and prison systems should include “ban the box” measures to restrict how hiring managers can ask about criminal histories – something President Obama recently did for federal hiring practices – and a revamp of education programs behind bars.
Since being fired, Smith has gotten plugged in with a legal aid group in Albany that is helping him recover his footing and that may eventually help him sue Walmart over his treatment. For now, though, he’s more worried about how he’s going to buy Christmas presents for his two teenage children.
This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on November 20, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org. He previously worked as an organizer on various political campaigns from New Hampshire to Georgia to Missouri. His writing on music and film has appeared on TinyMixTapes, IndieWire’s Press Play, and TheGrio, among other sites.