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Fired after winning shopping spree, Tampa employee gets job back

Queen Matthews cheers after hugging Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings after they finished a $1,000 Sweetbay shopping spree on Aug. 28 in Tampa. Jennings and Matthews had 10 minutes to fill their carts with $1,000 worth of groceries.
Queen Matthews cheers after hugging Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings after they finished a $1,000 Sweetbay shopping spree on Aug. 28 in Tampa. Jennings and Matthews had 10 minutes to fill their carts with $1,000 worth of groceries.
Published Apr. 15, 2014

TAMPA — Queen Matthews was delighted last year when a contest she won sent her on a $1,000 Sweetbay shopping spree with Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Desmond Jennings.

You know who wasn't delighted?

Her bosses at Tampa City Hall.

They thought she was sick that day.

Then they saw the news video of her running and filling a cart with groceries. They fired her.

That was Oct. 31. Last week, the city's Civil Service Board reinstated Matthews on appeal. Board members said the city didn't prove that Matthews, 47, submitted falsified paperwork about being sick so she could have guaranteed time off for the spree.

"This is unreal, what they did to me," a tearful Matthews said afterward. "I wasn't a bad employee." She said she had worked for the city for 25 years, "so it hurts what they did."

Matthews' odyssey began when she won Sweetbay's fourth annual Shop with a Player contest. Before the week when she was scheduled to meet Jennings at Sweetbay, she asked her supervisor for the day of the spree off.

The supervisor checked the schedule. Because some other people were already scheduled to be off, she said Matthews couldn't take all of Aug. 28 off. Matthews was needed to close the Kate Jackson Community Center that night. Matthews could take five hours off so she could attend the noontime celebration at Sweetbay, but she had to come in at 6 p.m. Aug. 28 to close the center. Matthews agreed.

On Aug. 27, the day before the spree, Matthews arrived at work and learned that a floor in one room had been waxed. Several times before, she had left work after saying paint fumes, bleach or other cleaning compounds made her sick.

Soon she was coughing, choking and grabbing her throat. She ended up in the emergency room at St. Joseph's Hospital. When she left that evening, a doctor said to return to work three days later on Aug. 30.

The following day, Matthews went to a Sweetbay supermarket on N Florida Avenue. Wearing a Rays jersey with "Queen" printed across the back, she loaded three carts with fresh produce, melons, meat, frozen food, chips, bottled water and drinks. She said the groceries would feed kids at the community center where she worked. The next day, she dropped by the center with several bags of fresh produce and took some melons to seniors at a community center in Port Tampa where she previously worked.

"This is a blessing to me because I'm able to help out other people," Matthews told a Tampa Bay Times videographer at the store. "I'm truly happy. This is the best 10 minutes of my whole, entire week."

Jennings, who pushed the cart, said "it was pretty intense."

"I was playing catch-up the whole time," he said. "She was moving."

She did not close the Kate Jackson Center that night.

To parks officials, this amounted to what city personnel policy defines as "moral turpitude," and they fired her from her job as a recreation leader.

"Because you claimed to be sick and were then seen participating in the shopping spree the very next day running, shouting, etc., it is believed that your claim was false," officials told Matthews in a notice of termination. "Further, it is believed to have been fabricated so that you would be guaranteed leave to attend. . . . This cannot be tolerated."

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The Civil Service Board hearing, which took four hours on April 7, included testimony about Matthews' request for leave, the compromise for a partial day off, how she came to feel sick, what forms were filled out before she got sick, what forms were filled out at the hospital, whether she told doctors that she had suffered similar problems previously, and what instructions she got upon her discharge.

On cross examination, city labor attorney Tom Gonzalez zeroed in on discrepancies and the reliability of Matthews' testimony. For example, she said the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration had investigated the workplace after her previous bouts of chemical-induced illness. But Gonzalez said OSHA has no jurisdiction over city facilities.

Her boss told Matthews she could take the day of the shopping spree off "as long as you closed, right?" Gonzalez asked.

"Correct," Matthews said. "I did not expect to get ill."

"They're asking Ms. Matthews all these questions to prove that she wasn't really sick," her attorney, Roderick Ford of Tampa, told the board. "The city has not produced any evidence, none whatsoever, that Ms. Matthews' illness is illegitimate."

The board voted to reinstate quickly and unanimously. The key issue, they said, and the reason cited for firing Matthews, had to do with falsification of records.

"There is no way the city has come close to proving this," board member Charlotte Hursey said. "If the city's contention is that Ms. Matthews is a malingerer and has tried to abuse the system, I would look at it differently, and I think different witnesses would have needed to be provided to us."

But Hursey added that Matthews already had been granted leave to cover the event, and the ER doctor said to return to work three days later.

"Ultimately, what I think the city did was overkill," said board member Luis Viera, who nonetheless said he saw some issues with Matthews' credibility and so was voting to reinstate her "with some hesitation."

The board took much longer on the question of back pay, with several inconclusive votes. Eventually, it awarded Matthews, whose salary was $46,009 a year, back pay, minus anything she had earned or any unemployment compensation she received after her firing.

The city has 30 days to appeal the board's decision to circuit court. Officials have not decided whether to appeal and have not made arrangements for Matthews to return to work.


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