Whole Foods sued by staff for being punished over wearing Black Lives Matter masks

‘We look forward to making our argument in federal court,’ says lawyer representing workers

James Crump
Wednesday 22 July 2020 19:50 BST
Purported Whole Foods voicemail to employees about coronavirus diagnosis

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Whole Foods staff members are suing the US supermarket for allegedly punishing workers for wearing Black Lives Matter face masks.

The supermarket, which is owned by Amazon, discriminated against its African American members of staff by not allowing them to wear the masks while accepting other political messages, 14 former and current workers allege in the lawsuit.

They claim that 40 members of staff across the company’s locations in the US have been punished for wearing Black Lives Matter masks, after wearing face coverings became mandatory for workers and customers earlier in the year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The company said that they ban “visible slogans, messages, logos or advertising” on clothing, but other staff members, wearing LGBT+ pins or sports team merchandise were not disciplined for wearing them, according to the BBC.

“Whole Foods’ selective enforcement of its dress code in disciplining employees who wear apparel expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement constitutes unlawful discrimination,” the lawsuit reads.

Black Lives Matter protests have taken place across the US in the last few months, following the death of George Floyd while in the custody of a then Minneapolis police officer.

People in various countries around the world have shown their support for the movement, which calls for an end to police brutality against African Americans, by wearing items of clothing emblazoned with the phrase “Black Lives Matter”.

The lawsuit asks for the court to bar Whole Foods from further punishing the staff members and for compensation to be given to workers who were sent home after they arrived at work wearing the face masks.

One of the 14 people suing the company, Savannah Kinzer, said she was fired by the supermarket for wearing a supportive face mask and organising protests after colleagues were punished, but Whole Foods denied the claim in a statement released on Tuesday.

“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 read.

The company added that Ms Kinzer was “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.”

However, the lawyer defending the Whole Foods workers, Shannon Liss-Riordan, hit back at the company and said the claims against Ms Kinzer were untrue.

“Their decision to retaliate against employees expressing support for this racial justice movement was bad enough, but their efforts to disparage an amazing activist and leader are beyond the pale,” she told the BBC. “We look forward to making our argument in federal court.”

Ms Liss-Riordan added: “Whole Foods and Amazon have portrayed themselves as champions of racial justice, but when their employees try to speak out, they get muzzled.”

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