Whole Foods workers filed a federal class action lawsuit Monday against the grocery chain for discriminating against employees wearing Black Lives Matter face masks and asked the US District Court in Boston to prohibit the grocer from retaliating against them.
Employees of Whole Foods Market in Cambridge and elsewhere started wearing masks printed with “Black Lives Matter” in June in solidarity with the movement following the death of George Floyd. Workers who wore the masks were sent home without pay, disciplined, and threatened with termination, according to the lawsuit. Whole Foods said the masks violate the company dress code.
Savannah Kinzer, the employee who led the action at the River Street store in Cambridge, said she was fired Saturday after accumulating disciplinary points for choosing to walk off the job instead of removing her Black Lives Matter mask, among other infractions.
“We have to expose the hypocrisy in this nation,” said Kinzer, one of 14 plaintiffs named in the suit from Cambridge; Bedford, N.H.; Berkeley, Calif.; and Seattle. “We can’t just keep going about our days living while others are surviving. We have to lift the veil over our eyes. It’s time.”
A Whole Foods spokeswoman said that Black Lives Matter masks violate the company’s dress code, which prohibits visible slogans, logos, or advertising that aren’t company-related in order to ensure workers’ safety and keep the focus on customer service. Whole Foods is a mission-driven company that prides itself on the many ethnicities, cultures, and backgrounds in its community and has no tolerance for retaliation, she 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,” the spokeswoman said in a statement. “Savannah Kinzer was separated from the company for 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.”
But Whole Foods has not consistently upheld the dress code policy, said Peterlee Dorielan,a 19-year-old cashier at the Fresh Pond store in Cambridge. Dorielan and some of his coworkers recently started wearing Black Lives Matter masks and have been sent home for refusing to take them off.
Dorielan said that when the Patriots and the Red Sox are in the championships workers often wear team gear with no repercussions. The company has also passed out LGBTQ pins that employees wear in the store, he said, and he has seen some Amazon Prime shoppers in the store wearing sandals, which are also prohibited by the dress code.
“We’re the young ones, and change starts with us,” said Dorielan, who is originally from Haiti, noting that the group of nine workers wearing masks at his store are almost all under the age of 21.
Wearing the masks “has less to do with a political statement and more to do with morality,” he said. “It’s so much deeper than just a dress code. Policies can change.”
Whole Foods’ actions are shameful, said Shannon Liss-Riordan, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, especially considering its employees have been putting their health at risk during the coronavirus pandemic. Whole Foods and its owner, Amazon, openly support the Black Lives Matter movement, she pointed out — the phrase “Racism has no place here” is displayed prominently on Whole Foods’ website — but don’t let their employees express the same sentiment.
“When employees try to express similar statements and beliefs, they were muzzled,” she said.
Whole Foods employees are part of a wave of workers around the country trying to spread the Black Lives Matter message and encountering resistance from major companies that have publicly disavowed racism.
Whole Foods’ actions violate the Civil Rights Act’s prohibitions on discrimination and retaliation, according to the suit, which also asks for an immediate injunction against termination and retaliation, as well as damages and back pay. The plaintiffs also filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the National Labor Relations Board, the latter of which protects workers’ rights to engage in activities to improve their working conditions, according to the complaint.
“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,” Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said in a statement. “I stand in solidarity with them, and call on Whole Foods to reverse course immediately.”
Grocery workers are considered essential but are paid low wages, said Kinzer, 23, who is white and started working as an Amazon Prime shopper in April. And they are disproportionately people of color, she added.
“For us not to be able to explicitly support them is not just hypocritical, it’s insulting and it’s demeaning and it’s demoralizing and it’s unjust and it hurts,” she said. “It’s painful. And I see that in my coworkers’ faces.”
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.