Saturday, July 03, 2004
Va. law prohibits making cashiers pay for stolen gas
However, the labor department can't take action without payroll deductions printed on employees' paychecks.
Some Roanoke Valley gas stations may be breaking Virginia law because their employees pay for stolen gas.
"The law says they can't take it out of their wages," said Ellen Marie Hess, director of the Labor and Employment Law Division of Virginia's Department of Labor and Industry.
But the line of legality blurs inside some stations, where cashiers slip money into the cash register when they feel responsible for drive-offs, instances where people fill the tank but drive away without paying. The Department of Labor and Industry can't take action without payroll deductions printed on employees' paychecks.
Most stations require employees to note the make, model and tag number of each car before they turn on the pump. If the driver sneaks away without paying, and the clerk can't provide proper information for a police report, the clerk is considered at fault, and in some cases is asked to cover the loss. Some clerks keep quiet and simply put their own money in the cash register.
While many owners, who often have limited profit margins themselves, absorb all loss from stolen gasoline, other gas stations have policies that differ depending on who is asked. At a few stations clerks said they sometimes pay for stolen gas if they don't have the information for a police report, but owners at the same stations said their employees never had to pay for losses.
Some clerks voluntarily cough up thieves' gasoline money. Will Tucker, 23, who has worked at a Plantation Road Chevron for a year and a half, paid for a drive-off Wednesday. He said he was not obligated to cover it.
"It doesn't bother me," he said. "It's kind of my responsibility to watch the pumps."
Owners can only be found in violation of Virginia law if employees report documented proof to the state labor department. If employers are caught breaking the law, they must refund all the money and pay a $1,000 fine per paycheck. Donna Kleene, regional supervisor for the labor and industry department in Southwest Virginia, said she gets about five complaints annually from former gas station employees who claim their employers withheld money from drive-offs.
Attorney Jonathan Rogers, who specializes in employment law, said most employees are probably too afraid to speak up.
"They're intimidated," he said. "Nobody likes to give up money for something they didn't receive."
Most station owners insist that they either don't ask employees to pay for drive-offs at all or that they only do when they suspect dishonesty. Owners defended what they called a last-resort practice because they said some clerks, assuming the station will pay for all stolen gasoline, will invite family and friends to fill up for free. Others are just negligent, their bosses say, and their shifts suffer many more drive-offs than other shifts.
After Bankim Patel, who owns an Orange Avenue Raceway station, lost hundreds of dollars from an employee claiming drive-offs, he asked his clerks to sign a form agreeing to pay for drive-offs if they were extremely frequent during their shifts. Most drive-offs he covers himself, he said. Patel said he consulted police officers about the legality of his form, and they told him it was fine. But Kleene, of the labor and industry department, said deducting wages is still illegal, even if employees sign a form. After learning that, Patel said he would consult the department himself and make sure he used a policy in compliance with the law.
At Apple Mart stations, which usually carry BP gasoline, clerks with unprecedented drive-offs during their shifts are spoken to and later fired if their records don't improve, said Larry Bowling, operations manager for Workman Oil Company, the parent company of Apple Market. That practice is legal, according to the Department of Labor and Industry.