By Annie Lane
Dozens protested Friday evening to show continued support for Ian Rey, a longtime Sprouts Farmers Market employee who said he was fired after 14 years for mistakenly taking a coworker’s jacket.
Rey was terminated from Sprouts on Monday, and has experienced an outpouring of support from the community and customers alike – many of whom say they won’t shop at the local grocery store anymore.
For some, Rey was simply a friendly face they’d come to expect to see over the years. For others, he was someone they would stand in a longer line just to say high to while he bagged their items.
“I’ve never met Ian on a bad day … I’ve never seen him not happy,” said Crystal Trignano, a special education teacher at Dewey Elementary who organized the evening rally. “It was always ‘What can I help you find?’ or ‘Is there anything you need today?’ It’s just not normal for people to care that much.”
Trignano lives in the military housing nearby to Sprouts, and said the store had become a major convenience over the past three years. But she said she’s now willing to travel a little farther for her produce, and has already explained the situation to her two young children.
“They asked me why, and I told them that this was important. That you don’t forget,” Trignano said.
Ask anyone who knows Rey, and they’ll tell similar heartwarming stories about him. Born with fetal alcohol syndrome and adopted when he was 5 years old, his sister Sunny said he was never expected to be able to talk very much. Now, she said, “you can’t get him to stop!”
And what Rey has been saying most of late is how appreciative he is for his new found support group.
“It’s very wonderful,” Rey said with a big smile. “I like it. They support me. That’s great.”
Rey, who is 38, has been independent since he was 18. For the past 14 years he worked at the Point Loma Sprouts as a bagger and the ever popular “balloon man.” According to his father, Jerry, he made a little less than $12 an hour, and recently his hours were often being cut.
But the real trouble began last week when Rey said he mistakenly picked up a coworker’s black jacket from the company break room and took it home. He wore it back to work the following day, and was approached by his employers after being reported by the coworker.
Jerry Rey said his son was spoken to without his job coach present – something he claims is not a part of the company’s due process procedures when dealing with disabled employees. Jerry Rey said it was during this private meeting that they asked his son to write an apology letter to the coworker before suspending him from work for three days. They then apparently sent the letter to corporate as an admission of guilt.
Jerry Rey said Sprouts also claimed to have a video of misconduct committed by his son, but that neither he nor any member of the Rey family has been given access to it. In addition, Sunny Rey said she finally got a Sprouts representative to offer up partial access to her brother’s employment file, but that no one has been allowed to see the entire record.
When they officially terminated Ian Rey on Monday, they spoke directly to his job coach.
“The only thing they brought up in that meeting was the jacket,” Sunny Rey said. “Ian doesn’t have a record – and I don’t mean at Sprouts, I mean ever.”
The story of intentional theft is not one that locals are willing believe either. Several potential shoppers turned away from Sprouts Friday after listening to demonstrators, opting to go to the nearby Ralphs or Vons instead.
“He’s the only reason we shop there,” said one mother, holding her daughter in her arms as she crossed the parking lot. “He’s the only one who remembers us.”
“And he gives us balloons!” her daughter piped up.
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Martin, a customer-turned-protester, declined to give his last name but said he began shopping at Sprouts in 2004, when it was still Henry’s Marketplace. He said he has known Ian Rey since that time and has never heard anything negative about him. He said he won’t be patronizing the grocery store any longer.
Shopper Val F. echoed the same before leaving to find another grocery store. She said she didn’t interact with Ian personally, “but I remember seeing him, and I remember having a good impression.”
After looking at the gathered crowd she added with a tone of admiration, “Who is this guy? I lost my house to an illegal foreclosure and had two cars repossessed that were paid for, and no one showed up to protest for me!”
Organizations are also coming to Rey’s aid. United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 135 has said they will legally represent Rey for free. Organizing Director German Ramirez said they first became aware of Rey’s plight through the family’s social media efforts. (Ian Rey updates can be found at the Facebook page, Where’s Ian. This is the second Facebook page the family has created due to the first one being inexplicably deleted.)
Because Sprouts is a non-union company, Ramirez said UFCW will be unable to initiate their normal internal investigative procedures. Instead, he said they will focus on whether Sprouts initiated appropriate due process in the form of progressive discipline and just action before firing Rey.
Whatever the outcome, Ramirez said the union’s intent is simply to support Rey in any way it can. And while he wouldn’t put a dollar amount to the services the UFCW is offering, he said that it was all worth the cost.
“This is a person that has been pushed aside,” Ramirez said. “When you look around at the love and support that the customers and community have for him – this is priceless.”
Rey said he has already applied to three other places of employment: Trader Joe’s, Brazen BBQ and Lotus Cafe and Juice Bar, all of which located are in Hillcrest near where Rey lives. But his heart is at Sprouts, and Rey said he would love to be able to work at their Park Boulevard location .
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Sprouts has offered little in the way of a response other than a generic one sent from their corporate office in Arizona, which has been offered up to several news stations and outspoken community members. It reads as follows:
“Thank you for taking the time to write. We have a very long history working with team members of all ability levels. Unfortunately, there were some inaccuracies in the news report that have mischaracterized our company. There is more to the story than being reported; however, we do not publicly comment on personnel issues.”
If you would like to write a letter in support of Ian Rey, the Sprouts email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Sunny Rey said Friday that more than 500 letters and emails of support have already been sent to Sprouts or the family’s Facebook page so far.
All photos by Annie Lane.