Workers at the Whole Foods stores on River Street and Alewife Parkway - including one who says she was fired from the River Street store on Friday - have filed what they hope will be a class-action discrimination suit against the chain over the issue of being sent home if they show up for work with masks reading "Black Lives Matter."
The suit, filed this morning in US District Court in Boston by attorney Shannon Lis-Riordan, also names workers at Whole Foods stores in New Hampshire, Washington state and California as plaintiffs.
The complaint alleges managers had long ignored the company's own ban on apparel and buttons with visible non-company slogans - until Black Lives Matter became a revived movement following the death of George Floyd, and that this constitutes both racial discrimination against Black workers and a violation of their right to protest workplace discrimination
Whole Foods employees have worn apparel bearing various logos, such as those of local sports teams, as well as apparel with other messages and slogans, including political messages, without facing discipline. Employees have commonly worn Pride flags in support of their LGBTQ+ coworkers without being disciplined by Whole Foods. Employees have not been sent home or received discipline for wearing Pride pins or apparel.
When employees have violated the dress code policy, in the past, it has either been ignored, or sometimes management has informed employees about it but without sending them home or imposing other discipline.
This extended to masks that employees are now required to wear due to Covid-19, the complaint continues:
Whole Foods employees began wearing masks emblazoned with different images or slogans. For example, at the Bedford, New Hampshire, Whole Foods location, one employee was allowed to wear a SpongeBob mask without any repercussions. At the Seattle, Washington, location, another Whole Foods employee wore a mask with images and names of vegetables, without being disciplined. At the Berkeley, California location, employees have been allowed to wear masks with prints.
But workers who put on BLM masks were sent home without pay or written up in disciplinary reports, the complaint continues - even as both Whole Foods and owner Amazon professed to support the movement:
Whole Foods’ policy of not allowing its employees to wear Black Lives Matter masks is discriminatory, both against Black employees who are participating in and leading the employee protest, and against other employees who are associating with and advocating for Black Whole Foods employees and protesting racism and discrimination in the workplace, by wearing the masks and showing support for their Black co-workers.
Further, as the protest has proceeded over the last weeks, employees are wearing the masks in order to challenge what they perceive to be racism and discrimination by Whole Foods for not allowing employees to wear the Black Lives Matter masks. Whole Foods’ discipline of these employees constitutes retaliation against the employees for engaging in protected activity, namely opposing discrimination and racism in the workplace. ...
Plaintiffs and other Whole Foods employees believe that the decision by Whole Foods to selectively enforce its dress code policy in order to ban Black Lives Matter masks is discriminatory and unlawful because Whole Foods has not strictly enforced the dress code policy before and did not discipline employees for wearing apparel with other political messages, including apparel similarly supportive of their LGBTQ+ coworkers.
The complaint continues:
On July 18, 2020, Plaintiff Savannah Kinzer, who has been a leader in organizing employees to wear the Black Lives Matter masks (and has led a number of protests outside Whole Foods stores, challenging the company’s policy of not allowing employees to wear the masks), was fired. She was terminated due to her accumulation of disciplinary points, most of which she received as a result of wearing the Black Lives Matter mask. She was also terminated in retaliation for being a leader in organizing the employees to wear the masks and protesting the company’s policy of disciplining employees for wearing the masks.
The suit asks a judge to order Whole Foods to stop banning the masks, give Kinzer her job back and pay damages.