Restaurant rehires worker filing claim

Man on duty during robbery was fired for violating policy


April 02, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Fired the day after being victimized by two robbers, a Columbia restaurant manager has regained his job with the Red Lobster chain, but Sean T. Lawrence's strange employment odyssey isn't over.

Lawrence was kitchen manager of Red Lobster in Columbia's Snowden Square shopping center when he was tied up with duct tape, pistol-whipped and robbed as he closed the business about midnight Jan. 10. He was fired the next day for violating corporate security policy by being alone at closing time.

A month later, helped by publicity and letters written by family, friends and local officials, he was rehired with back pay, a Red Lobster spokesman confirmed. But the 36-year-old father of three hasn't returned to work.

He filed a workers' compensation claim the day of the robbery, claiming psychological damage and injuries to his head, neck and wrist. The company has contested the claim and no hearing date has been set, according to state files.

Lawrence is reluctant to discuss his situation.

"They rehired me. I recovered my pension. My termination was erased," is all the Columbia man would say.

His attorney, David E. Fink, said that's because of "pending legal matters," namely the unsettled compensation claim.

Jim DeSimone, a spokesman for the Florida-based Red Lobster chain, said that after several weeks of reflection, the company felt Lawrence could be rehired without diminishing the point the firm made by firing him - that company security procedures must be followed.

"Our research shows the likelihood of a robbery drops dramatically with more than one person" in the store, he said.

"By everyone's account, he [Lawrence] was alone in the restaurant. We were weighing safety," DeSimone said, "and safety is not negotiable."

Lawrence, a five-year Red Lobster employee, had supervised a carpet cleaning crew for two hours after the restaurant closed at 10 that night. As the cleaners left, he was ready to discard some leftover cake and turn off the lights when he saw a man in the kitchen pointing a gun at him. Another man, wearing a ski mask, bound him with duct tape and forced him to lie face-down on the floor.

The pair later removed some of the tape and forced him to open the safe. The gunman hit him on the head with the pistol when the safe's combination initially didn't work. After taking an undisclosed amount of cash, the thieves bound him again with tape and left. Lawrence was able to wriggle to a phone and call police. No arrests have been made in the case, police said last week.

But after receiving letters from Lawrence's supporters, including one from Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, DeSimone said, company officials decided their point had been made and they could rehire Lawrence.

"I'm not going to tell you that community reaction didn't help," he said. "Clearly, people had concern about Sean Lawrence. But from the chain's perspective, termination sent a clear message."

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