Kyle Dowie worked at the Hy-Vee supermarket in Urbandale, Iowa, for 25 years. His job was menial; he handled the cans and bottles brought in for recycling credits. But as a 43-year-old man with a mental disability, Dowie was happy, until he was fired last November for trying to cash in 20 cents of credits that the manager claims were not his, reports the Des Moines Register. Last week a complaint was filed on his behalf with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.
Early last November, Dowie redeemed $3.75 of bottles brought from home, along with two ten cent chips dated from September. According to Dowie's 72 year-old mother, Jean Ann Johnson, who drove him to and from work everyday, Dowie would sometimes pick up the credit tokens left in the machine, in case those customers returned.
Although the money spat out by those machines isn't actually Hy-Vee's -- the store is reimbursed for all recycling credits by the Iowa government -- it's apparently against the rules for employees to cash-in found credits.
The store's operations manager, Curt Sills, accused Dowie of theft, and fired him, according to the complaint. Dowie was allegedly written up for the same offense three times before, but the most recent time was eight years ago.
Dowie knew that cashing-in those credits was wrong, his lawyer, Brooke Timmer, told AOL Jobs. "They're not his. They're not his own cans." But she says he was confused at the time, and wasn't sure if the receipts were left in the machine, or were his from sometime before. Dowie has the mental capacity of a 14 or 15 year-old.
"I am mentally retarded," Dowie said in a statement, "but Hy-Vee did not take that into account when ending my employment over 20 cents."
Mental disabilities are covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act, which means employers with 15 or more employees must provide "reasonable accommodation" to the person's disability, as long as it doesn't result in "undue hardship." Timmer believes that by firing him, Hy-Vee failed to offer "reasonable accommodation."
The job "was his lifeline," Johnson said. "It's nasty, it's sticky, it's gross. It's probably one of the worst jobs there," adds Timmer. But still, "he absolutely loved his job. It really gave him a sense of self-worth."
The Des Moines Register points out that there's something suspect about the whole incident. "If a person is terminated from Hy-Vee for cause, we would not recommend them to another Hy-Vee store," Ruth Comer, a Hy-Vee corporate spokeswoman, told the newspaper. But Dowie's manager told him that he would help him find a job at another Hy-Vee, and in fact went so far as to call one up.
Johnson believes that the store was just trying to dump her son from its payroll; after 25 years, he was making $13 an hour and had four weeks of vacation a year. If he took a job at another Hy-Vee, he would be earning minimum wage with no benefits, according to Johnson.
It's "one of those cases that just gets my blood boiling," Timmer told the Register.
In 2009, Hy-Vee was awarded the Des Moines Disability Services Award for the store's commitment to hiring and retaining employees with disabilities in the Des Moines area.
On Tuesday, Hy-Vee's corporate office announced that the store would be rehiring Dowie. The store said in a press release that "while it was within our right to dismiss Kyle," the attention the story had received had led "many individuals to mischaracterize our company."
"We believe it is in our best interest and Kyle's best interest for him to rejoin Hy-Vee," the statement concluded. Timmer said over email that Dowie hasn't yet decided whether to accept the company's offer, which is for a different position at a different store. She also claims the company is absolutely wrong when it said it was within its rights.
"Kyle's firing violated both the Iowa Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disability Act," she wrote, and while she and Dowie are open for some kind of resolution, they're going forward with their discrimination complaint.
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