The "seven-month nightmare" that would cost Jeffrey Armstrong his job and his home all started when Wawa spoiled his lunch.
Armstrong, a 40-year-old former Wawa worker, thought his store's lunch break policy violated Delaware state law, since it didn't guarantee employees a half-hour uninterrupted break for every 7 ½ hours worked.
He raised the issue with his boss, who wrote him up in December because he "gossiped" about the matter with co-workers. He contacted human resources, which he said never returned his calls. He filed an internal ethics complaint, all to no avail.
In the end, Armstrong was fired four days before Christmas last year after donating food to a church. Wawa offered shifting reasons for his dismissal, ranging from stealing to mishandling food. Delaware officials, in assessing whether he qualified for unemployment, found that Armstrong was fired "without just cause." Armstrong believes his termination was really retaliation for blowing the whistle on a legally dubious lunch break policy.
Armstrong filed charges against Wawa in February through the National Labor Relations Board, alleging the company fired him for protesting policies he had the right to contest. The NLRB, a federal agency that enforces labor laws, is now trying to facilitate a settlement, according to emails and documents.
Wawa was willing to sign a proposed settlement last week that would have given Armstrong $8,630 of back pay, but only if he waived his right to seek his old job back, according to a copy of the proposal and an email Armstrong received from an NLRB official. Armstrong, who earned about $400 per week at Wawa, rejected the offer.
"I'm not comfortable with that at all because it's not true. They're not offering me my job back and I'm not turning them down," said Armstrong, who worked for Wawa for 4½ years and was cross trained to work throughout the store.
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A Wawa spokesperson declined to comment, citing active litigation.
The Wawa store, located in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, gave workers 15 minutes in paid break for every four hours worked, but the breaks could be cut short depending on staffing needs, according to a copy of the policy.
Delaware state law says all employees must receive a meal break of at least 30 consecutive minutes if the worker is scheduled to work 7 ½ or more hours per day. There are some exemptions granted, such as if only one worker performs the duties of a job or there are fewer than five employees on a shift.
Wawa did not answer questions about the store's lunch break policy and whether it complied with Delaware state law.
According to his affidavit, Armstrong said he asked the store manager, Alexa Houston, for a half-hour uninterrupted, unpaid break promised by Delaware state law. But Houston, who did not return a message seeking comment, instead instituted a new policy that said workers "may not clock out and do what you please on your break," according to a memo she sent to employees in November.
In addition, the policy prevented workers from going to their cars during break, something Armstrong wanted to do. At the same time, the policy permitted smokers to light up twice a day for 15 minutes at the front of the building or near the store's trash area. Armstrong contacted Wawa's ethics hotline twice about the break policy, according to his affidavit.
The confrontation between Armstrong and Houston escalated as he became more vocal about the break policy. On Dec. 12, Houston wrote him up for "creating conflict with associates," according to a report she drafted. Among other things, Houston wrote that Armstrong "gossiped" with a coworker about a conversation that he had with his manager about the break policy. Armstrong, she wrote, was telling coworkers he was out to get her job, according to the write up.
Armstrong was fired more than a week later — on Dec. 21 — ostensibly over an unrelated issue.
In Armstrong's telling, he was called into Houston's office and accused of stealing food by a person from loss prevention who didn't identify herself. The issue stemmed from Armstrong taking food donations to the Epworth United Methodist Church in Rehoboth Beach. After he was fired and escorted from the store, he said he obtained a note from the church proving that he dropped off food donations at the church. Then, he said, Wawa's story changed.
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According to company documents, Armstrong was fired for mishandling — not stealing — food donations he took to the church. In a January decision upholding Armstrong's termination, a Wawa senior associate relations specialist wrote that Armstrong was not food certified and suggested he may have improperly stored and transported the food since, among other reasons, the "temperature of his storage unit was not monitored" and "it is not known if the cardboard box he used was clean and free of any possible contaminants."
In February, Delaware's Division of Unemployment Insurance said Armstrong was fired without just cause and could apply for unemployment benefits, according to government records. The division reported that Wawa at first indicated Armstrong was fired for contributing to unsanitary or unsafe conditions, but later told the division he was fired for theft when asked for more information.
"I was just stunned. Absolutely numb. I couldn't believe what just happened to me. I knew none of it was true," Armstrong said. "And I knew I could prove it — and it didn't matter."
Armstrong's mother was dying of cancer when he was fired just before the holidays, so he initially kept the bad news from his family.
"My whole world fell apart and I had to pretend that it didn't for five days because I wasn't going to lay it on my parents in my mom's condition," he said.