Rite Aid Worker Says She Was Fired After Asking Maskless Customer to Leave Store: 'They're Punishing Me for Defending Myself'

A shift manager at a Rite Aid in York, Pennsylvania, said she was fired from her job on Tuesday after defending herself against a maskless customer who allegedly became violent when told to wear a face covering in the store.

Elena Santiago worked at the downtown York pharmacy for four-and-a-half years, previously appearing in the York Daily Record newspaper for her hospitality towards customers in light of the pandemic. She was considered "the light of that store," until a September 3 incident caught on the store's surveillance camera caused her to lose the job entirely.

The incident began when a young man holding a skateboard and not wearing a mask entered the Rite Aid that afternoon. Santiago said she offered the man a face mask, complimentarily offered by the store for customers who don't have one, but the man replied that he doesn't need to wear a mask. It is mandatory in the State of Pennsylvania to wear a face mask in all public settings, including stores.

Santiago told him: "If you're going to disrespect me, I'm going to have to ask you to leave the store."

But the man refused to leave. After telling him that she would call the police, Santiago said that he threatened to physically attack her. She said that she asked the cashier to page her co-workers for help, but the man quickly became violent, forcefully pushing her against the magazine rack. He then allegedly began "wrecking the store," yanking items off the rack and shoving cash registers and merchandise off of the counter.

According to Santiago, previous run-ins with rude and sometimes violent customers caused her to consider a security guard for the downtown York store, which is common for the chain to implement within stores that may have frequent break-ins and theft. When she asked the district manager, however, she said her request was swiftly denied.

When Santiago finally called the police, the man heard and turned to her. She grabbed a small pocket knife that she was carrying, as well as a bottle of pepper spray to defend herself. She said she always kept her pocket knife in her locker, but since it was close to the end of her shift, she had put it in her pocket not too long before the incident.

After pointing her knife at him, the man exited the store and allegedly broke two windows with his skateboard from the outside before finally leaving.

Rite Aid's Stock Rises
People wear protective face masks outside Rite Aid in Harlem as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on August 25, 2020 in New York City. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/Getty

The day after the incident, Santiago said a human resource worker called from Rite Aid's corporate headquarters in Camp Hill to ask if she had gone to the hospital. Santiago said no, and they asked her to take the weekend off with pay. When she returned the Tuesday after Labor Day, a person from human resources called to tell her she was fired.

"I really don't understand it," she told the York Daily Record. "I was fired for defending myself. They're punishing me for defending myself. I think it's unfair how they handled it."

Rite Aid spokesperson Chris Savarese said that Santiago was not fired due to self-defense, but rather due to the fact that she had a knife while on-duty.

"We understand the concern regarding the incident in York, PA. For many reasons, we have a no tolerance policy specific to associates bringing weapons to our facilities and having weapons on person," Savarese wrote in an email to Newsweek. "The primary reason is to keep our associates, customers and communities safe, and to mitigate an escalation of any situation. In this unfortunate incident, the show and use of weapons by our associate created an escalation."

He added: "We also understand tensions are high in today's environment, which is all the more reason for our associates not to carry weapons in our facilities. The incident is currently being investigated by the York City police department."

However, social media users have consistently expressed disappointment and anger towards Rite Aid for how they handled Santiago's situation. Over 200 supportive comments flooded a Facebook post about Santiago's termination in the "Fixing York PA" group. The post was shared by Scott Fisher, who wrote the newspaper column about her pandemic-related hospitality.

"I cannot believe that she was fired for protecting herself. Where is the security person then? How can we help her?" read one comment. Others shared screenshots of the location, encouraging readers to leave a scalding review.

On Twitter, several people quickly jumped to Santiago's defense, calling for a boycott of the chain. One user voiced her concern about the basis of Santiago's firing.

"What sort of ethical base has Rite Aid in York, PA firing a female employee who was defending herself against a threatening kid who defied state law by not wearing a mask and then threw his skate board through the window?" they wrote.

Another user chimed in: "You lost a long-time customer by firing Elena Santiago in York, PA instead of supporting her. Shame on you for focusing on a silly pocket knife instead of your employee being beaten for enforcing the governor's mask order."