Thomas Smith
11 Alive Screenshot

The entire story centers around three key elements: empty cans, the proximity of said empty cans to an East Greenbush, N.Y., Wal-Mart and $2 in cash.

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That was all it took for 52-year-old Thomas Smith of Albany, N.Y., to lose his $9-an-hour job. Didn't matter that he was formerly homeless and an ex-convict trying to set his life right. Didn't matter that he was a few weeks from passing his 90-day probationary mark. According to Wal-Mart spokesman Aaron Mullins, who spoke with the Times Union, Smith exhibited "gross misconduct" when he took several empty cans from a cart and redeemed them for $2.

On Nov. 2, Smith was doing his job collecting carts in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart store when, he claims, he noticed several discarded cans in a shopping cart. He claims that he put them in the recycling machine, which gave him a ticket for $2. He then went and cashed the ticket and was given two singles—and that is when all the trouble started.

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According to Mullins, the cans were not in the parking lot but were inside the store near the front entrance. Because they were inside the entrance, and even though the cart was discarded and Smith told officials that he had watched the couple drive off, the cans were technically Wal-Mart property. The store terminated Smith on Nov. 6, according to 11 Alive, for stealing empty cans that were left behind in a shopping cart. Had the cart been left outside in the parking lot, Smith wouldn't have been fired.

"I didn't know you couldn't take empties left behind. They were garbage," Smith told the Times Union, which broke the story. "I didn't even get a chance to explain myself. They told me to turn in my badge."   

The story of Smith's firing went viral. A GoFundMe page was created and has raised more than $21,000 on Smith's behalf. A lawyer has taken up the fight to help Smith get his job back, and Assemblyman Steven McLaughlin, a Republican, visited the Wal-Mart store and asked a manager to rehire Smith at a different store.

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"I said this is nonsense. Let's just try to help the guy. He made a mistake; give him a warning and move on," McLaughlin told the Times Union. "He's been in prison, he was homeless and now he's got a job and is trying to contribute to society. They're turning a molehill into a mountain of bad publicity. I told Wal-Mart they're a week away from their biggest shopping day of the year, and they could end up with a bunch of protesters outside the store. Just transfer him to a different store. Easy fix."

Wal-Mart isn't backing down. It considers Smith's actions to be akin to theft and argues that the discarded cans were Wal-Mart property. The Times Union quotes Mullins as saying, "He was terminated for taking property inside the store."

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Smith told the newspaper that in the two months he worked at the store, he had only redeemed $5.10 worth of cans, an amount that includes the $2 redemption.

Smith told the Times Union on Friday that he never stole from Wal-Mart. "I never stole anything from that store," Smith said. "I paid for everything I bought inside the store."

An East Greenbush Target manager who read about Smith's firing told the Times Union that she would be willing to consider giving him a job. "We have to look into his situation more," Marita Paredez, human resources manager at the Target store, told the newspaper. "But we are interested in speaking to him."

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Read more at the Times Union and 11 Alive.