Several former and current Whole Foods employees filed a federal lawsuit against the grocery store company in Boston Federal Court on Monday alleging the company fired employees for wearing ‘Black Lives Matter’ facemasks to work, but Whole Foods contends it is not the case and the lead plaintiff simply had trouble getting to work on time.
The lawsuit was filed by Attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who was at one time running for U.S. Senate but has since dropped out of the race, and the suit is backed by several prominent politicians.
The suit does not list anyone being fired from the Charlestown location, but was filed by 14 employees at Whole Foods stores in Cambridge, MA; Bedford, NH; Berkeley, CA; and Seattle, WA. Other plaintiffs are expected to join the action, which seeks redress for all Whole Foods employees across the country affected by the company’s policy. News reports have emerged on employees being similarly disciplined in North Carolina, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. It is claimed that their Civil Rights were violated by the firing.
“The actions of Whole Foods against its employees are not only illegal but shameful”, said Liss-Riordan, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “These essential workers have been asked to put their health at risk during this pandemic, and they have done so. Whole Foods’ decision to selectively and arbitrarily enforce it’s ‘dress code’ to specifically suppress the message that Black Lives Matter paints a picture about what the company values, and that picture is not pretty.”
Plaintiff Savannah Kinzer said she was allegedly terminated by Whole Foods for wearing the mask, but her contention is disputed entirely by Whole Foods.
“In addition to being discriminatory, Whole Foods’ policy on Black Lives Matter facemasks is hypocritical,” said Savannah Kinzer, a plaintiff in the case who was recently terminated by Whole Foods for wearing a Black Lives Matter mask. “Whole Foods states prominently on its website and on signs in its stores that ‘Racism has no place here,’ but won’t allow employees to express solidarity with Black lives.”
A Whole Foods company spokesperson said they cannot comment on pending litigation, but said, “While we cannot comment on pending litigation, it is critical to clarify that no Team Members have been terminated for wearing Black Lives Matter face masks or apparel,” said the spokesperson. “Savannah Kinzer was separated from the company for allegedly repeatedly violating our Time and Attendance policy by not working her assigned shifts, reporting late for work multiple times in the past nine days and choosing to leave during her scheduled shifts. It is simply untrue that she was separated from the company for wearing a Black Lives Matter face mask. As an employer we must uphold our policies in an equitable and consistent manner. Savannah had full understanding of our policies and was given a number of opportunities to comply.”
The spokesperson said the Time & Attendance policy requires their Team Members to show up for scheduled shifts and be in dress code compliant attire. They said in order to operate in a customer-focused environment, all Team Members must comply with our longstanding company dress code, which prohibits any visible slogans, messages, logos or advertising that are not company-related, on any article of clothing.
Liss-Riordan indicated store managers cited the company dress code – which prohibits slogans or logos not affiliated with the company — as the reason for prohibiting BLM messages on employee attire. However employees note that the company has allowed other messages such as rainbow pins and flags; sports team names and logos; and humorous statements such as “soup is good.” She contended that managers selectively enforced the dress code against facemasks with the “Black Lives Matter” message, which employees argue is a factual statement of fundamental human rights rather than a slogan.
The lawsuit quickly got the support of U.S. Senator Ed Markey and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley.
“Whole Foods workers, like dedicated grocery workers across the country, are risking their lives every day during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Markey in a statement. “Their work is essential, and their voices are essential. Whether in stores or on the streets, we should welcome and support those exercising their rights and standing up to say Black Lives Matter. If we want true change in this country, the kind of change that comes from racial and economic justice, then we need to stand in solidarity with these Whole Foods workers, activists, and protesters.”
Said Pressley, “In this moment – when our community is confronting the overlapping crises of systemic racism and the COVID-19 pandemic – I find hope in the young people, the activists, the organizers, and community builders who are putting their own lives and livelihoods on the line to demand change. The Whole Foods workers standing up to affirm that Black Lives Matter are carrying forward the tradition of protest and activism that remains at the heart of our struggle for civil rights. I stand in solidarity with them, and call on Whole Foods to reverse course immediately.” The complaint alleges that Whole Foods’ actions violate the Civil Rights Act prohibitions on discrimination and retaliation and request an immediate injunction against employee retaliation and termination, as well as compensatory damages and back pay. The employees have also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging Whole Foods with interfering with their right to engage in concerted activity to improve conditions in their workplace.