British Columbia

Perils of pilfering pondered as can of coconut cream costs B.C. man his job

In a ruling that ponders a plethora of possible punishments for pilfering, an arbitrator upheld a decision to fire a 57-year-old B.C. man over the theft of a damaged can of coconut cream worth only a few dollars.

History of firings shows people have paid high price for theft of chocolate bars and hockey helmets

A B.C. man was fired from his warehouse job for stealing a can of coconut cream and then lying about his actions. An arbitrator upheld the decision. (Shutterstock / HandmadePictures)

If H.N. had asked his supervisor to take the can of coconut cream, he likely would have been given the go-ahead.

But arbitrator Richard Coleman said he couldn't ignore the fact the Delta warehouse employee tried to hide the 2.8 litre can beneath the plastic containers in his lunch bag as he left the building, nor that he allegedly lied about having permission to take it.

And so a can of coconut cream cost Henry H.N. his job.

"All of that, in my view, makes this a matter of theft," Coleman wrote in a labour arbitration decision last month.

"Not the less serious offence of breaching a rule."

'Already damaged when it arrived'

In a ruling that ponders a plethora of possible punishments for pilfering, Coleman upheld a decision by H.N.'s employer to fire the 57-year-old over a damaged item worth only a few dollars.

H.N. had worked for Canada Cartage Logistics Solutions for 11 years when a suspicious supervisor stopped him as he was leaving work on April 29, 2020.

In this file photo, a worker drives food products around a warehouse. According to an arbitrator's decision, a Delta warehouse employee had been discovered with a can of drink hidden in his forklift. (Mel Evans/Associated Press)

The company deals in the distribution of bulk food and beverages. According to the decision, clients occasionally release damaged goods for disposal by H.N.'s employer, which then allows employees to take them home with the approval of one of two managers.

"That was the circumstance in the current case. A box of food product, cans of coconut cream, normally shipped in cases of six 2.8 litre cans per case, was already damaged when it arrived at the warehouse dock," the decision reads.

"The customer was notified and several days later, released the damaged product to the employer." 

The plant manager claimed he stopped H.N. after getting a tip from an employee. Almost a year earlier, H.N. had been issued a warning after he was caught with a can of drink hidden on his forklift.

According to the decision, H.N. followed the manager into his office, but left his lunch bag outside the door: "(The manager) asked to look inside the bag and seeing several tupperware containers, he asked that they be removed, at which point he saw the can of coconut cream at the bottom of the bag."

The ruling says H.N. told the manager that a supervisor had given him permission to take the can, but the supervisor denied having given him the green light. 

H.N. later allegedly said another employee — who also took home a can of coconut cream — told him that the manager had given the okay for everyone to do so. But the employee denied asking on H.N.'s behalf.

'Not a spur of the moment, isolated act'

In coming to a decision, Coleman considered a litany of cases in which employers have successfully argued that even long-term employees should lose their jobs over the most trivial of items. 

Those include a 52-year-old who lost a 17-year position for the one-time theft of pizza pops, a 13-year veteran of a grocery storage facility terminated for taking a $2.50 chocolate bar and a 60-year-old fired for stealing two hockey helmets.

Arbitrators have also reversed firings — as in the case of a 56-year-old woman who lost the job she'd had for 17 years to a momentary impulse to take a $1.50 Glade air freshener, and a truck driver who was fired for taking a four-litre box of Tide home after fishing it out of the garbage.

"The fact patterns in the cases cited where discharges were overturned and replaced with suspensions, distinguish those cases from the current matter, on a number of critical grounds," Coleman wrote.

"This was not a spur of the moment, isolated act that can be characterized as an 'aberration and an isolated incident.' It was a premeditated act, with intent."

Coleman agreed with the employer's position that deterrence was needed to keep others from breaking the trust third-party customers place in the company to handle their goods.

"The Employer argues that the breach of trust which occurred here has irretrievably damaged the trust they feel that they must have in an employee in this kind of unsupervised, unmonitored work place, where there are multiple opportunities to remove goods," Coleman wrote.

"They are vulnerable and the effect of a damaged reputation with respect to the security of their customers' products would significantly damage their business."

H.N. testified that he came to Canada from Vietnam in 1984 and had taken food like watercress and pineapple with the employer's permission in the past. He described the system as fairly loose and noted that a sign had occasionally been placed above damaged goods encouraging people to "take what you want."

H.N. said he knew firing was a possible penalty for stealing and lying.

He said he took the food to his temple for distribution to the homeless.

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story identified H.N. His name has since been removed from the story, which has also been updated to add clarification with regards to the element of deterrence for employees handling third party goods.
    Feb 05, 2021 9:08 AM PT

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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