Racial Justice

Whole Foods fired the Cambridge worker who led protests over Black Lives Matter masks. Now, they’re getting sued.

“This is a moment in history when companies need to walk their talk on racial equality."

Savannah Kinzer during a walkout at a Whole Foods store in Cambridge last month after fellow employees were told that their Black Lives Matter face masks did not comply with the company dress code. Erin Clark / The Boston Globe

After being disciplined for wearing Black Lives Matters masks during their shifts, Whole Foods workers in Cambridge are leading a national class-action lawsuit against the supermarket chain.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court in Boston, argues that Whole Foods violated Civil Rights Act protections against workplace discrimination after it sent home — and, in one case, even fired — workers who wore face coverings supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Austin, Texas-based grocery store chain cites a dress code prohibiting clothing with “visible slogans, messages, logos or advertising that are not company-related.” However, plaintiffs say the policy has been “selectively” enforced; employees had previously been allowed to wear rainbow pins and flags in support of LGBT rights, as well as masks with sports team logos and irreverent statements like “soup is good.”

Savannah Kinzer, a former Whole Foods worker who was fired from the chain’s River Street store in Cambridge over the weekend, called the Amazon-owned chain’s actions “discriminatory” and “hypocritical,” given the company’s well-publicized support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

“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,” Kinzer, who led protests and walkouts after being sent home for a Black Lives Matter mask, said in a statement.

“This is a moment in history when companies need to walk their talk on racial equality,” said Suverino Frith, another Whole Foods employee at the Cambridge store.

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Kinzer reportedly passed out Black Lives Matter masks to fellow workers — all of whom were sent home — at the River Street store last month after seeing reports of similar incidents at stores across the country, including in Bedford, New Hampshire.

A spokesman for the group told Boston.com that Kinzer was the only employee who has been fired “the we know of” in the wake of the mask dispute.

The lawsuit says that the 23-year-old Boston resident and recent Northeastern University graduate was fired and escorted out of the River Street store this past Saturday, an hour after informing management of the forthcoming legal action. According to court documents, she claims her termination was “due to her accumulation of disciplinary points, most of which she received as a result of wearing the Black Lives Matter mask” and also “in retaliation for being a leader in organizing the employees to wear the masks and protesting the company’s policy of disciplining employees for wearing the masks.”

In a statement, Whole Foods rejected the notion that Kinzer’s firing was due to her wearing a Black Lives Matter face covering.

“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,” a company spokesperson told Boston.com in a statement.

“Savannah Kinzer 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 statement continued. “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.”

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Whole Foods says it has a “zero-tolerance” policy for retaliatory action and has steps in place to ensure employees’ legal rights, including an internal complaint tip line. The company says its policies, including dress code, are meant to prioritize “operational safety” and in-store customer service.

Other large businesses, including Costco, Taco Bell, and Chick-fil-A, have similarly banned employees from wearing Black Lives Matter attire. And there has been at least one case, at a Target store in New York, where a shopper confronted an employee over their Black Lives Matter mask.

Starbucks also initially banned its employees from wearing such apparel during their shift, citing in-store safety and “agitators who misconstrue the fundamental principles of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement” and “repurpose them to amplify divisiveness.” However, the coffee chain reversed course last month, saying it was “critical to support the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement as its founders intended.”

Whole Food employees have argued that there should be nothing “political” about expressing a “statement of basic human rights and compassion.”

In addition to Kinzer and Firth, the lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts was initiated by 12 other Whole Foods workers — four employees at the River Street store; three employees at the Fresh Pond location in Cambridge; three Bedford, New Hampshire employees; one Berkley, California employee, and one Seattle employee. The group says they expect others to join the class action suit, given reports of similar disciplinary actions in North Carolina, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

The lawsuit requests an injunction against any additional employee firings, as well as compensatory damages and back pay. And the group has also filed a complaint against Whole Foods with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming the store interfered with their right to engage in concerted activity to improve workplace conditions.

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Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, donated $10 million last month to social justice groups, including the NAACP. Whole Foods also says it takes great pride in its inclusive culture and diverse workforce. However, labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan said their more recent “shameful” actions speak louder.

“These essential workers have been asked to put their health at risk during this pandemic, and they have done so,” Liss-Riordan said. “Whole Foods’ decision to selectively and arbitrarily enforce its ‘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.”

According to the court documents filed by the plaintiffs, the “selective enforcement” amounts to “unlawful discrimination on the basis of race and on the basis of employees’ affiliation with and advocacy for Black employees,” a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The lawsuit suit also received support Monday from Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who represents the district where the River Street store is located and called on the chain to allow employees to wear Black Lives Matter attire.

“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,” Pressley said. “I stand in solidarity with them, and call on Whole Foods to reverse course immediately.”

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