June 2, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 68°F


Student racially profiled and wrongfully fired from Walmart

Ithaca College senior Rugie Baldeh was working her shift in the electronics section at Walmart on Nov. 11, 2021, when she became a victim of a repeated scam. During her next shift, she said she was a victim of racial profiling when the Walmart assets protection manager accused her of aiding the scammers, then fired her and banned her from Walmart.

“The first thing that I felt — it wasn’t even anger — I felt betrayed and hurt,” Baldeh said. “I never experienced a situation like that [before] because I felt like I was being [racially] profiled. … I didn’t even know what to think at first. I was really confused.”

This method of scamming — called a “cash-out scam” — has been done before at other Walmart locations and in those cases, employees were not blamed. This same scam occurred in Batavia, New York, and Columbia County, Georgia. The customer gives a credit card and, using different tactics, confuses the cashier and convinces them to select the “cash” option on the register, which makes the register think the purchase is being paid in cash and cancels the credit transaction, according to the Kane County Chronicle.

In Baldeh’s case, she said she was suspicious of the customers and said she spoke to several managers who told her not to worry. They said if there was money missing, the items could be tracked with their serial numbers.

During Baldeh’s shift Nov. 13, she said she was questioned by the assets protection manager about the events from the day before. The AP manager explained there was $4,000 missing from the electronics system. Baldeh said the AP manager began to say things she knew were not true: that the customers did not use a card, that Baldeh did not ask for payment and that Baldeh knew the customers and helped them get their items for free.

“The only thing me and these individuals had in common was our race because there would be no way that she would conclude we knew each other by that footage,” Baldeh said. “Every time I tried to speak and explain what happened, she insisted and was trying to convince me that I know these people.”

Baldeh said she was told by the AP manager that this scam was grand larceny and company fraud and she would be fired. She said she was then made to sign a document banning her from the premises.

“I asked, did she speak to any witnesses?” Baldeh said. “She said the investigation is closed and all she needed was my word and the camera. Then she went on to say that she couldn’t trust my word anyway. I was very emotional and crying and asking why would she think I knew those people and she still wasn’t giving me a good answer and saying from the camera footage we looked like we knew each other.”

Baldeh was accused of grand larceny, which for an individual with no record of previous crimes could result in incarceration from two to seven years, according to Saland Law. The case was soon closed and no charges were filed.

“I can’t really discuss the case,” Ryan Card, officer at the Ithaca Police Department and lead officer on Baldeh’s case, said. “If she wants to discuss it with you that’s totally fine. I can’t discuss it with you. All I can tell you is that the case is closed and nothing’s coming of it. … There’s really no follow-up for it. The case is closed on my hand so I don’t really have any follow-up to do with her.”

When The Ithacan attempted to obtain Walmart’s store policy for letters of termination, a store manager said Baldeh should have received one in the mail and would have to call Human Resources. However, when Baldeh would try to do so, the line would continue to ring and would never let her leave a message.

When Baldeh went to class after she was terminated, her professor, Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, professor in the Department of Politics, noticed something was wrong.

“You see a student like Rugie, bright, engaged, raising provocative issues, always in the conversation and then one day you come to class, and she’s staring out of the window,” Soyinka-Airewele said. “You can’t even continue teaching. It’s impossible. … Just watching my students in class when they go through a situation like that is literally heartbreaking.”

Soyinka-Airewele said she tried to help Baldeh by going to Walmart herself Dec. 13, 2021, and requesting the termination letter. She brought with her a letter signed by Baldeh to show the request came from Baldeh. Soyinka-Airewele said she was told by a  Lucas Jones, omnichannel store manager at Walmart, that he could not give her the termination letter because of Walmart policy.

After asking for said policy to give to Baldeh, Soyinka-Airewele said she was verbally attacked by someone with the tag “store lead” who accused her of disruptions, disturbances and trespassing on private property. The store lead said she was going to call the police but Soyinka-Airewele called first, wary of having the police called on her, as a Black woman. Police reports were made for both cases and Soyinka-Airewele reported her own experience to Walmart’s corporate offices.

On May 2, 2023, Soyinka-Airewele spoke to Traci Cerasaro, regional people operations lead for the Walmart, who said the case had been closed after investigation but did not provide further information about how it was resolved. Cerasaro said it was not company policy to follow up with complainants. In a call with The Ithacan, Cerasaro said any information or comment about any incident would have to be requested through Walmart Media Relations.

Walmart Media Relations did not respond to a request for comment.

“[Walmart] made [Baldeh] feel less than human,” Soyinka-Airewele said to The Ithacan. “You threw her out, embarrassed and humiliated her, then did the same thing to me when I spoke on her behalf. Then you now gave me a fraudulent apology and failed to do anything about the situation.”

Baldeh and Soyinka-Airewele are not the first to experience discrimination or employee abuse from managers at Walmart. The corporation is well known by labor rights activists for targeting employee unions and mistreating workers, according to the Cornell Chronicle. There are also recorded instances of discrimination against customers, like in a 2022 case in Portland, Oregon, where Michael Mangum, a Black man, received $4.4 million in damages from Walmart in a racial profiling lawsuit, according to NPR. Mangum said he was followed around the store by an assets protection manager.

Soyinka-Airewele is also the vice-chairperson of the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission, co-president of the African Women’s Initiative and works with advocacy non-profits, including the Verity Foundation and Advocacy Network.

“I believe that for women and people of color who come to the college, there’s always been a desperate need for support for advocacy and for justice,” Soyinka-Airewele said. “The issues that students of color face is marginalized, is rendered invisible and people often give up and keep quiet about what they’re going through because they feel that they want to avoid being pictured as a victim. Sometimes they imagine that they’ve made a mistake themselves.”

Baldeh said Soyinka-Airewele’s experience solidified for her that they had both been victims of racial profiling. Baldeh said that for a long time she blamed herself for what happened but now she wants Walmart to rectify the actions of the people involved. She said she hopes to set a precedent for students of color at predominantly white institutions and communities so that they can speak up.

“I would just like for [Walmart] to take accountability and … open up an investigation again on the people that did it,” Baldeh said. “I wasn’t scared about being arrested at the time for that. I didn’t think that was a possibility. But just having my name tarnished.”

Baldeh said she is unsure if she wants to pursue legal action against Walmart for firing her, racially profiling her and for wrongfully accusing her of crimes.

Baldeh also said she did not work again until after Spring 2022 because of her experience at Walmart and had to shop at more expensive stores. Soyinka-Airewele said Walmart owes Baldeh for the negative impact the incident had on her and for wrongfully terminating her.

“When you profile someone wrongly like that, you injure them very deeply,” Soyinka-Airewele said. “So I hope somehow that message will go out and also encourage people to stand more as allies. You know, there’s too much fear in Ithaca, a lot of people-pleasing the powerful instead of speaking up when you see something go wrong to your colleague.”

Lorien Tyne can be reached at ltyne@ithaca.edu