Since George Floyd was killed by police in late May, Black Lives Matter protests have continued to demand real change in dismantling racism across the nation. People have not just taken to the streets, they've also brought attention to the racism Black Americans face in their social circles and workplaces, with a majority of Americans and many companies — including Amazon — openly supporting the movement.
But on Monday, July 20th, 14 Whole Foods employees in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Washington, and California filed a federal class action lawsuit claiming that the Amazon-owned grocery chain had disciplined them for wearing masks and other apparel supporting BLM, sent them home without pay, and even threatened them with termination.
It claims that one of the plaintiffs, Savannah Kinzer, was fired this past Saturday from a Whole Foods in Cambridge, MA, for wearing a BLM mask, organizing protests against Whole Foods’ policy on BLM masks, and rallying her coworkers to wear the masks too. A Whole Foods spokesperson told Refinery29 that this is not true, and that 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.” The spokesperson added that a part of the company's Time & Attendance policy requires employees to show up on time in “dress code compliant attire.”
Whole Foods has a dress code policy that prohibits slogans, logos, messages, or advertising unrelated to the company, but the lawsuit alleges that it was not strictly enforced — employees wore apparel supporting sports teams, political messages and slogans, including ones supporting LGBTQ+ people, without facing any discipline. The Whole Foods spokesperson said that the company sets policies that maintain “focus on customer service in our stores.”
The plaintiffs argue that Whole Foods’ actions violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, religion, or gender in the workplace. Workers also have a legal right to protest issues at work, and the lawsuit claims that these employees were retaliated against for protesting racism and unfair disciplinary actions at their Whole Foods locations.
The lawsuit states plaintiffs didn’t expect any discipline for wearing BLM apparel, because Amazon and CEO Jeff Bezos have publicly expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The homepage of the Whole Foods website currently displays a message that reads “Racism has no place here,” with a short blurb that says the company “supports the Black community and meaningful change in the world.”
Camille Tucker-Tolbert, a plaintiff who worked at a Seattle Whole Foods location, claimed that she was sent home twice for wearing a Black Lives Matter mask and had been put on something called a “corrective action pathway” that meant she had to retrain. According to plaintiffs, managers at individual stores told them that banning BLM masks was a corporate decision they had no control over.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately killed Black Americans, Whole Foods has faced criticism from both the public and its employees for not doing enough to protect its essential workers. Some workers have said that early on in the pandemic, they were discouraged from wearing masks, perhaps because wearing one could give the impression that they were sick. By early April, Whole Foods began providing masks to employees and implemented a daily temperature check. On July 20th, the company began requiring all customers to wear masks. While Whole Foods initially offered $2/hr hazard pay to its employees, that extra pay expired on June 1st. Grocery store workers, including those at Amazon and Whole Foods, have repeatedly gone on strike over insufficient COVID-19 protections and transparency.
Other companies have also disciplined employees for wearing Black Lives Matter apparel. In June, a Taco Bell manager in Ohio was fired because he refused to remove a mask that supported BLM. In a statement to Marketwatch, Taco Bell said that it has apologized to the employee and that it does not ban employees from wearing BLM masks. Starbucks initially instituted a ban on BLM apparel, but quickly reversed it after public backlash.
Amazon is also currently being sued by employees in New York who claim lack of COVID-19 protections, including not having enough hand sanitizer and not being able to socially distance, put them in danger. In the lawsuit, the employees say they asked for more time off from tasks so they could wash their hands. In response, Amazon has claimed that it communicated to employees that they could take time away from their stations to wash their hands without penalty.