A Snack, a Slip And a Second Chance

Michael Holland holds the letter he got from Safeway containing the one-sentence notification that he had been fired.
Michael Holland holds the letter he got from Safeway containing the one-sentence notification that he had been fired. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
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By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008

Michael Holland was working the deli counter at a Safeway in Damascus in January when a manager told him to take a short break. On his way, he picked up a glazed doughnut from the bakery department and a small carton of milk from the dairy case.

Holland, who struggles with physical disabilities and some slowness in cognitive processing, returned to the deli without paying. He says he did not realize his mistake until a manager asked for a receipt. Holland apologized, he said, and explained he had been preoccupied and rushed. The break was less than 10 minutes, he said.

"I forgot. There was so much going on, a lot of stress, and I just wasn't thinking," he said.

His failure to pay for his $1.78 snack brought Holland's nearly 18-year career at Safeway to a sudden halt. In the eight weeks that followed, Holland, the primary breadwinner for his wife and four children, was suspended, ordered to pay for the food, fined $50 and fired.

Yesterday, after a meeting with Local 27 of the United Food and Commercial Workers and inquiries by The Washington Post, Safeway offered to reinstate the 37-year-old worker. Safeway officials said they will make an exception to their "zero tolerance" policy against employee theft because of Holland's disabilities and his long-standing service with the company.

Safeway officials said that the store, like many other groceries, operates with a narrow profit margin -- 1 to 2 percent -- and takes a hard line on theft, no matter how small. That position, worker advocates say, can mean a big price for a small mistake and makes it hard to separate an honest lapse from criminal behavior.

In Holland's case, his family said it was especially tough because he is a worker with disabilities, making it difficult to find another job, especially one comparable to his Safeway position, which paid more than $17 an hour. Holland was born with deformities to his hands and feet and unusual facial and head features. He also has scoliosis and the slowness in cognitive processing, which is most pronounced when he is under stress, they said.

"I am very happy," Holland said yesterday of the reinstatement offer.

Holland's family shared his relief. "I'm ecstatic about the outcome," said Sandra Holland-Handon, his aunt. The details are to be worked out Monday, she said. It could be tricky because he will not be assigned to the same store and he does not drive. "I just don't want him to be penalized, given what he has already been through," she said.

Several days earlier, she had said the firing "was like a death sentence for our nephew. The management has to understand who they are really working with."

The day of the incident, Holland was struck with fear, he said. He signed a statement of admission, he said. He did not ask for a union representative. A week later, he was called back to sign a second admission of guilt and pay the $50 fine.

The union found out about his case two weeks after the fact. "I was pretty much trying to listen to what my manager wanted me to do," said Holland, who had been waiting to be called back to work.

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