That’s not funny

Food 4 Less employee let go for lampooning corporate owner

CARICATURE STUDY Kyle Knecht was relieved from his job as a cashier at Food 4 Less in March, about a week after he’d drawn and posted for fellow employees the cartoon depicting the uncaring big wigs at Fleming Inc. Earlier,

CARICATURE STUDY Kyle Knecht was relieved from his job as a cashier at Food 4 Less in March, about a week after he’d drawn and posted for fellow employees the cartoon depicting the uncaring big wigs at Fleming Inc. Earlier,

No frills: Food 4 Less keeps its prices down by staying out of high-rent districts (there is no store in San Francisco, for example), having customers bag their own groceries, offering no deli or flower shops and placing food items on shelves in cut-open cases.

On March 13, Kyle Knecht was fired from his job as a grocery cashier at the Chico Food 4 Less store on Whitman Avenue. He says his termination, which came after seven years with the company, was for drawing and then displaying a cartoon in the employee count-out room.

The cartoon, he says, expressed his frustration when he failed to get answers from management as to why his hours had been cut from 40 per week to 20 soon after the year-end holiday season.

Knecht says the reduction in hours was part of a pattern at the store that included cuts in benefits, increases in medical insurance deductibles, positions eliminated in favor of robotic cashiers and an inevitable loss of worker morale and customer service. He says the reduced hours translated to smaller paychecks, which forced him to start living off his credit cards to help make ends meet.

According to the store’s “disciplinary action statement” (signed “under duress,” Knecht wrote on the statement), Food 4 Less terminated him for “Inappropriate behavior in the workplace. Slurs, jokes, and or verbal or graphic misconduct is a form of harassment.”

The statement goes on to say that, “Because of the seriousness of any harassment in the workplace, Kyle’s employment with Food 4 Less has been terminated.”

Knecht applied for unemployment within days of his firing. And he received his first check from the state Employment Development Department a few weeks later. But since then he’s received notice from the state that Food 4 Less has appealed EDD’s decision to grant him unemployment benefits. Now he is waiting for a hearing in Sacramento to determine his continued eligibility.

Knecht began working at the Chico Food 4 Less in 1994 and used the job at the warehouse-type grocery store to help put himself through college. He stayed on once he was out of school, because he’d worked his way up to cashier and was making pretty good money by Chico standards—close to $16 an hour, and this at a non-union shop.

Knecht liked his job and the folks he worked with as well as the store’s owner. He was the store’s unofficial cartoonist, drawing humorous cartoons of fellow workers and posting them in the employee count-out room, where the daily transactions are tallied. His managers encouraged him to do the cartoons as sort of a morale booster, he said. He was even asked once to illustrate the company newsletter. Knecht has also done cover illustrations for this newspaper.

In 1994 Chico icon Steve Nettleton owned the Food 4 Less store. A few years ago, he turned it over to his two right-hand men, Rick Linton and Mario Sagastume. Nettleton went on to buy and bring to town the Chico Heat professional baseball club. Linton and Sagastume took over the store operations and in time brought in Fleming Companies, Inc., as an investor.

Kyle Knecht

Photo by Tom Angel

Fleming is a giant, and powerful, corporation. The Oklahoma City-based company operates more than 3,000 supermarkets, 6,800 convenience stores and more than 2,000 other retail stores. It is also the largest grocery distributor in the nation. When it decided on Jan. 21 to withhold grocery shipments from Kmart because of late payments, the financially beleaguered discount store filed for bankruptcy the next day.

Two years ago Fleming bought out Sagastume and Linton. Soon after, Knecht says, operations within the Chico Food 4 Less started changing, including a total remodeling of the store. Once the remodel was complete, Fleming installed the robot cashiers, which allow customers to self-scan their purchases under the watchful eye of four cameras that are monitored by a single employee.

“They were killing us,” Knecht said of the new owners. “Lines were out the door because of the self-scan—the old folks had trouble with it.”

With the advent of the robotic cashiers, the store cut cashiers’ work hours dramatically—by half, in Knecht’s case.

“As [human] cashiers,” he said, “we were on the frontlines of customer service. When customers had complaints, we’re the ones that they complained to, not management.”

So, on March 4, Knecht expressed his frustration in cartoon form and posted it in the employee count-out room, where it remained for two days. The caroon depicts a down-and-out Knecht begging for change from a Fleming corporate fatcat. On March 7, Knecht’s manager, Brian Lee, called the cartoonist into his office for “initial counseling,” Knecht recalled.

“Lee informed me that the illustration was highly inappropriate and created a negative attitude in the workplace and that he considered it a ‘slap in the face,’ “ Knecht said. “I told him the only negative feedback I received about the illustration was his and that I had never drawn a cartoon before at Food 4 Less that had drawn more positive attention from my co-workers.”

One week later, Knecht was fired.

When contacted by the News & Review, Lee said he couldn’t comment on personnel matters but added he wished he could say more because he thought we’d find the story “very interesting.”

Knecht says he has nothing against Lee, who he believes was only following orders from above. He points to the out-of-state corporate structure for what he sees as the store’s fall from local grace.

Knecht created the cartoon above for the cover of the Food 4 Less employee newsletter at his boss’s request.

Lee referred us to company headquarters in Oklahoma, but it did not respond to repeated calls and e-mails.

“My first few years at Food 4 Less, back before Fleming took over entirely, were rewarding,” Knecht said. “I found myself forming a real knack for customer-service work, and my co-workers became like a real family to me. And I think the saddest part of the whole experience for me was watching that family suffer.”

Prior to the cartoon incident, Knecht says, he was warned that he was not presenting a positive company attitude, like when he heard the store was planning a pizza party for its employees.

“I said, ‘Yeah, when you see your [work] hours for next week, you’re going to need all the free food you can get.’ “

Knecht has written the American Civil Liberties Union and contacted a couple of attorneys, he said, but so far to no avail.

Local attorney Jeff Carter, who usually works for the employer in such cases, explains that most workers in California are “at-will” employees.

“An ‘at-will’ employment is of an indefinite duration, and either party can end it without notice, for any or no reason,” he said.

But Carter also finds it curious that the company would bother to find an excuse to terminate an employee—particularly this reason—when it could just as easily have fired Knecht without cause.

As an attorney, he said, “I would have tried to preserve the at-will employment [because] no cause is needed. But it sounds like Food 4 Less has thrown caution to the wind and now is saying this guy’s actions are harassment.”

Carter says the case also touches on First Amendment rights of expression.

“It sounds like initially they condoned the exercise of that right, but then all of a sudden they don’t like what he’s doing,” Carter said.

For his part, Knecht is still trying to come to grips with his sudden termination and subsequent battle to receive unemployment.

“At first I thought there might be some discipline, that they might suspend me over the cartoon," he said. "I drew them for seven and a half years. Then there’s one against the corporation, and all of a sudden I’m gone."