Elena Santiago was fired her from job at the Rite Aid in York, Pa. after she defended herself from a customer who refused to wear a mask.
York Daily Record
Video shows that the man shoved her into shelves and ransacked the store before breaking the plate-glass storefront window.
UPDATED: This story was updated from when it was first published with a response from Rite Aid.
YORK, Pa. – Elena Santiago says she was fired from her job at a Rite Aid in York, Pennsylvania, after she defended herself from a customer who reacted violently when she asked him to leave the store for refusing to wear a face mask.
Rite Aid has said that she lost her job because she possessed and displayed a knife during the episode — not because she defended herself and others in the store.
Before the incident, Santiago loved that job.
A shift manager at the Rite Aid pharmacy just off the square in downtown York, she loved talking to regular customers, people she considered friends. The store serves as a center of the community downtown – more like the corner store than part of a corporate chain.
For instance, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when toilet paper and hand sanitizer were in short supply, she would ask regular customers for their phone numbers and call them when shipments arrived.
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Last week, she woke up for the first time in four-and-a-half years without her job.
It began when a young man carrying a skateboard walked into the store at about 12:28 p.m. Sept. 3, not wearing a face mask.
When the man entered the store, Santiago said she asked him if he had a face mask. The man ignored her, so she asked again. The store keeps masks on hand for customers who don’t have any, and she offered to give him one. People entering the store are required by the governor’s order to wear one.
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The man, standing by the snack aisle, responded rudely, saying he didn’t need to wear a face mask.
She told him, “If you’re going to disrespect me, I’m going to have to ask you to leave the store.” The man refused to leave, and she told him she was going to call the police.
The man responded that if she called the cops, according to Santiago, he would physically attack her.
Santiago had previously had run-ins with rude customers, and she said more often than not they would leave the store when asked to do so and, in some cases, would return a day or so later to apologize.
A few months ago, though, the store had a problem with some kids and adults stealing and trashing the store and throwing merchandise at the staff, she said. She asked her district manager for a security guard, knowing that the chain posts them at stores that have had problems. She said the district manager declined her request.
When it was apparent the man wasn’t going to leave, Santiago said she asked the cashier to page her co-workers to help her.
The man turned to her and shoved her into the magazine rack. She hit her forehead on the rack and was left with bruises on her legs.
Then, she said, the man began “wrecking the store,” knocking displays off the front counter and throwing the cash register to the floor.
Santiago called the police, and when the man heard her, he turned to her again.
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At this point, Santiago pulled her small pocket knife and her pepper spray from her pocket. She lives in a room downtown, and she carried the knife and pepper spray for protection because she would walk to work before dawn and sometimes leave work after dark. (The knife had been in her locker at work, she said, but since it was close to the end of her shift, she had put it in her pocket so she wouldn’t forget it.)
She pointed her knife at him and went to use her pepper spray, she said, but since it was the first time she ever used it, she ended up spraying herself.
The man then left the store, she said, breaking the glass in two front windows with his skateboard from the sidewalk outside.
The episode was captured by a surveillance camera.
The police arrived about 30 minutes after the man left and took a report, she said. Her son – one of her two grown children who live in town, the only family she has in York – came to her aid and, along with some of her co-workers, scoured downtown, looking for the man. They didn’t see him.
Santiago went back to her room. She was shaken, she said, replaying the episode over and over again in her head.
The following morning, she returned to work at 7 to begin her shift.
She said a human resources person called from corporate headquarters in Camp Hill and asked her how she was doing. He asked whether she went to the hospital, she said. She said she had not. “I knew that a doctor would tell me to take off from work, and I didn’t want to,” she said. “I have to work.”
The HR person told her to take off Saturday and Sunday, with pay, and return after the Labor Day holiday.
She finished her pharmacy shift at noon last Tuesday and received a phone call from HR telling her she was fired from her $11-an-hour job, Santiago said.
She said the HR person told her that, for one thing, store personnel are not supposed to enforce the government-mandated mask requirement. For another, she had violated company policy by having a weapon at work, her pocket knife.
The HR person asked her whether she had anything to say.
“I was speechless,” Santiago said. “I thought, if anything, they’d write me up. I didn’t expect to get fired.”
She said she had never been written up before.
She composed herself and asked for a second chance, she said. The answer was no.
So, she found herself, at 40, without a job. She had always worked. Before she went to work at Rite Aid, she worked at McDonald’s downtown, and even after she started at the drugstore, she continued to work third shift at the fast-food franchise until it became too much.
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“I really don’t understand it,” she said. “I was fired for defending myself. They’re punishing me for defending myself. I think it’s unfair how they handled it.
“What was I supposed to do, let him hit me again or defend myself?”
Rite Aid spokesperson Chris Savarese wrote in an email that Santiago was fired for having a knife while on the job.
“We understand the concern regarding the incident in York, PA,” Savarese wrote in the email. “For many reasons, we have a no tolerance policy specific to associates bringing weapons to our facilities and having weapons on person. 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.
“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,” he wrote. “The incident is currently being investigated by the York City police department.”
Santiago, on Sunday, responded to Rite Aid’s statement, saying, “I didn’t create any problem.”
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