More than a dozen employees at Whole Foods Market, including nine at a location in Cambridge, filed a class action lawsuit Monday against the company claiming their civil rights were violated after being disciplined for wearing Black Lives Matter masks at the store.
The lawsuit included employees from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, California and Washington. It claims Whole Foods disciplined employees for wearing masks that included the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” While the store has a dress code, the suit says others employees wore masks featuring pride flags, the logos of sports teams and even SpongeBob Square Pants without any retaliation.
The suit said in some locations, employees were given disciplinary “points” when they are sent home for wearing a Black Lives Matter mask, which put them at risk for termination.
Savannah Kinzer, who lives in Boston and worked at the Whole Foods in Cambridge, was fired in July because of the discipline she received for wearing a Black Lives Matter mask and for her involvement in organizing her co-workers to wear the masks, the suit said.
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.
At the end of July, 21 Whole Foods employees were sent home from the store on River Road in Cambridge.
“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 company said in a statement at the time. “Team Members with face masks that do not comply with dress code are always offered new face masks. Team Members are unable to work until the comply with dress code.”
The suit claimed in the past, when employees violated the dress code policy, it was either “ignored” or management informed employees about it without sending them home or imposing disciplinary measures.
“Plaintiffs and other Whole Foods employees expected Whole Foods would support their decision to wear these masks because Whole Foods has expressed support for inclusivity and equality and because it previously allowed its employees to express support for their LGBTQ+ coworkers through their apparel without discipline,” the suit said.
The suit pointed to statements released by Whole Foods as well as parent company Amazon, including a “Black Lives Matter” banner that appeared atop the online giant’s website, as evidence why employees believed the masks would be approved by the market.
Employees in Cambridge who refused to take off their masks in Cambridge, were sent home without pay, the lawsuit stated. In Seattle, employees were placed on a “corrective action pathway,” that requires retaining. An employee in Berkeley, California was sent home for wearing a Black Lives Matter in. She soon left the job after feeling “unwelcome in the workplace” after receiving the disciplinary measure, the suit said.
The suit said managers at the stores said the regulations banning Black Lives Matter masks came from corporate orders.
“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,” the lawsuit said.
The suit claims that similar actions were taken by stores in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Connecticut, however, employees at those stores were not part of the lawsuit.
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