Whole Foods employees in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and two other states have filed a class action discrimination lawsuit against the grocery chain for disciplining workers who wore Black Lives Matter masks during their shift.
The suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Boston, seeks a preliminary injunction prohibiting further retaliation against employees choosing to wear the masks at work.
Starting in June, the suit said workers who wore the masks in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police were sent home without pay, harassed and intimidated by management, subjected to "corrective counseling," threatened with termination, and in some cases fired.
Whole Foods issued a statement Monday saying that no employees were fired for wearing Black Lives Matter masks.
"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," the statement said.
More than a dozen employees at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, Whole Foods said they were sent home for wearing the masks in late June. Two workers at a Whole Foods in Bedford, New Hampshire, were also sent home earlier in the month.
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“The actions of Whole Foods against its employees are not only illegal but shameful," said Shannon 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.”
The suit said store managers cited the company's dress code as the reason for prohibiting Black Lives Matter messages on employee attire. But in the past, workers said the company allowed rainbow pins and flags, sports team names and logos and humorous statements to be worn by employees at work.
"In order to operate in a customer-focused environment, all Team Members must comply with our longstanding company dress code, which prohibits clothing with visible slogans, messages, logos or advertising that are not company-related," the store said in a statement issued last month.
“In addition to being discriminatory, Whole Foods’ policy on Black Lives Matter facemasks is hypocritical,” said Savannah Kinzer, a plaintiff in the case who worked at the Cambridge store and was recently terminated by Whole Foods. “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.”
In its statement Monday, Whole Foods disputed Kinzer's claim that she was terminated for wearing a mask, saying she was "separated from the company for repeatedly violating our Time & 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."
Two Democratic Massachusetts lawmakers also weighed in on the controversy in a statement released by the plaintiffs.
“Whole Foods workers, like dedicated grocery workers across the country, are risking their lives everyday during the coronavirus pandemic,” U.S. Sen. Ed Markey said. “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.”
"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,” U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley said. “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 class action suit was initiated by 14 employees at Whole Foods stores in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Bedford, New Hampshire; Berkeley, California; and Seattle, Washington. Other plaintiffs in states like North Carolina, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Michigan are expected to join the action, Liss-Riordan said.
The complaint alleges that Whole Foods’ actions violate the Civil Rights Act prohibitions on discrimination and retaliation and requests 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.