A frenzy erupted last week at a California gas station as bewildered customers found they could fill up their tanks at a price last seen in the 1970s.
But their luck ended up costing John Szczecina his job after the Rancho Cordova, Calif., gas station he managed lost some $20,000 in sales.
It all came down to “an honest mistake,” Szczecina told The Washington Post. He only learned about the circus that had formed when he arrived the next morning for his shift. By then, it was too late. After being placed on administrative leave, Szczecina said he was fired Monday for the costly blunder.
Now, Szczecina is making it his mission to repay his former employer, and strangers are pitching in to help. Donations to a GoFundMe set up by his family have poured in since his story went viral. As of early Thursday, the campaign had raised more than $13,000.
“Even though it cost me my job, it’s fine. Because the truth is, you know, it’s my fault,” Szczecina said. “I know nobody wants to say that anymore, but I felt it was important to own up to my mistake and do everything I can to make it right.”
Shell did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post. A representative for its U.S. division told the New York Post that the station Szczecina managed is independently owned.
Szczecina said he got an email on June 9 instructing him to change the premium gas price to $6.99 per gallon — the third notification of a price hike he had received that week.
In California, drivers are facing the highest fuel prices in the country — with the cost of a gallon hitting a record average of $6.43, according to AAA data. The national average for regular gas on Saturday for the first time climbed over $5. The gas station where Szczecina worked had already begun seeing the effects of ever-increasing fuel prices, he said.
“We weren’t making a profit anymore,” the former manager said. “I’d been doing everything I could, from cutting back on stuff we weren’t selling as much to making sure we had the soda, coffee, anything my regulars liked. It’s been really hard … so when I saw I had to raise [gas prices] again, it just seemed like a nightmare.”
The morning of June 9, Szczecina typed “699” three times into his computer to set the new price. The final step was to confirm the change was reflected at the pumps. But before he could do the check, a truck outside hit a curb, sending the water bottles it was carrying flying across the parking lot.
For the next 20 minutes, Szczecina said he helped the truckers pick up their cargo. Several more work tasks occupied his attention, and the need to check the gas price on the pumps faded from Szczecina’s mind.
He left the station by 2:30 p.m. and went to bed early in preparation for a 4:30 a.m. start the next day. That is when he arrived to find the gas station’s district manager waiting for him.
“I immediately thought we had gotten robbed and was scared that something terrible had happened to the cashiers,” Szczecina said.
Instead, he learned about the craze his typo had caused when he mistakenly set the new premium gas price to just 69 cents a gallon. The last time a gallon was that cheap was in 1978, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
“I felt so terrible and just knew I was about to lose my job,” Szczecina said. “So I gave [the district manager] my keys … [and] drove back to my home and began updating my résumé.”
Now he is spending his days applying to jobs and going to interviews. In between, he has been taking his dog to the river amid California’s scorching temperatures.
“I really, really just want to go back to working,” he added.
Although he didn’t want to lose his job, he said he’d confess to his mistake all over again because “it was the right and honest thing to do.” He and his family have also found a silver lining: the outpouring of support they have received from strangers hoping to help him repay his former employer.
His sister, Paula Jackson, who organized the campaign, said Szczecina’s attitude shows “the goodness of his heart.”
“He doesn’t have to pay it back,” Jackson said. “But just the fact that he is doing it and wants to do it shows a lot of character and honesty and responsibility, and I’m really proud of him for that.”
“It takes guts to say ‘I made a mistake,’” she added.