But their luck ended up costing John Szczecina his job after the Rancho Cordova, Calif. gas station he ran lost some $20,000 in sales.
It all came down to “an honest mistake,” Szczecina told The Washington Post. He did not learn of the existence of the circus that had formed until he arrived the next morning for his shift. At that point, it was too late. After being placed on administrative leave, Szczecina said he was fired on Monday for the costly blunder.
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Now, Szczecina makes it her mission to pay off her former employer, and strangers join in to help. Donations to a GoFundMe set up by her family have poured in since her story went viral. By early Thursday, the campaign had raised more than $13,000.
“Even if it cost me my job, it’s okay. Because the truth is, you know, it’s my fault,” Szczecina said. “I know no one wants to say that anymore, but I felt it was important to admit my mistake and do everything I could to correct it.”
Shell did not immediately respond to a Washington Post request for comment. A representative for its US division told the New York Post that the Szczecina-run station is independently owned.
Szczecina said he received an email on June 9 asking him to change the price of premium gasoline to $6.99 a gallon — the third notification of a price hike he had received that week.
In California, drivers are facing the highest fuel prices in the country – with the cost of a gallon reaching a record average of $6.43, according to AAA data. The national average for regular gasoline climbed above $5 for the first time on Saturday. The gas station where Szczecina worked had already begun to feel the effects of steadily rising fuel prices, he said.
“We weren’t making a profit anymore,” the former manager said. “I had done everything I could, from cutting back on the things we weren’t selling as much to making sure we had the soda, coffee, whatever my regulars liked. It was really tough…so when I saw that I had to increase [gas prices] again, it felt like a nightmare.
On the morning of June 9, Szczecina typed “699” three times into her computer to set the new price. The last step was to confirm that the change affected the pumps. But before he could check, a truck outside hit a curb, sending the water bottles he was carrying flying across the parking lot.
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For the next 20 minutes, Szczecina said he helped truckers retrieve their cargo. Several other tasks occupied his attention, and the need to check gas prices at pumps faded from Szczecina’s mind.
He left the station at 2:30 p.m. and went to bed early in preparation for a 4:30 a.m. departure the following day. It was then that he arrived to find the district manager of the gas station waiting for him.
“I immediately thought we had been robbed and was afraid something terrible had happened to the cashiers,” Szczecina said.
Instead, he learned of the hype his typo caused when he mistakenly set the new price for premium gasoline at just 69 cents a gallon. The last time a gallon was this cheap was in 1978, according to the US Department of Energy.
“I felt so bad and knew I was about to lose my job,” Szczecina said. “So I gave [the district manager] my keys … [and] came home and started updating my resume.
Now he spends his days applying for jobs and interviewing. In the meantime, he took his dog to the river amid scorching California temperatures.
“I really, really want to go back to work,” he added.
Although he didn’t want to lose his job, he said he would admit his mistake again because “it was the right and honest thing to do.” He and his family also found a ray of hope: the outpouring of support they received from strangers in hopes of helping him repay his former employer.
His sister, Paula Jackson, who organized the campaign, said Szczecina’s attitude shows “the goodness of her heart”.
“He doesn’t have to pay it back,” Jackson said. “But just the fact that he does it and wants to do it shows a lot of character, honesty and responsibility, and I’m really proud of him for that.”
“It takes courage to say ‘I made a mistake’,” she added.