people holding sign at protest
Protest at Whole Foods on Gilman Street on July 17, 2020. Photo: Nancy Rubin

A group of current and former employees of Whole Foods Market have filed a federal lawsuit claiming their civil rights were violated when they were not allowed to wear masks, pins and clothing printed with “Black Lives Matter.”

The attorneys who filed the class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Boston are also asking the court for a preliminary restraining order stopping the grocery from firing or penalizing anyone for wearing BLM attire. The lawsuit contends that at least one employee lost her job because of her stance, an accusation the grocery company denies. Others are at risk of unemployment, too, the suit states.

Ana Belén Del Rio-Ramirez of Oakland, one of the plaintiffs, worked at the Whole Foods at Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley until July 18. She was wearing a Black Lives Matter pin and declined to take it off when asked by the store manager, Ramirez said. The manager asked if Ramirez would ever change her mind, and when she said no, the two agreed that that would be her last day at work. Ramirez had been working for Whole Foods since 2016.

Part of Ramirez’s frustration comes from the inconsistency of Whole Foods’s policy, she said. In June, she had embroidered a mask with “Black Lives Matter” on it and was allowed to wear it. For much of June and July, numerous workers at the Telegraph Avenue store were wearing BLM gear, she said. Then on July 17, store management informed everyone they could not wear apparel with slogans on it, as per company policy.

The edict came despite the front page of Whole Foods Market’s website, which states: “Racism has no place here.”

“It’s confusing for the team members,” said Ramirez. “Why can they (Whole Foods) say they stand for the Black community on their website (and at certain stores, have a banner) while team members aren’t allowed to show their support for Black Lives Matters and Black team members?

This policy is rooted in racism and discrimination and I don’t support it,” said Ramirez. “The reason they brought out this policy or are enforcing it is in reaction to us wearing Black Lives Matter masks.”

Another Whole Foods worker ran into a similar situation at the store on Gilman Street. A manager asked Jordan Baker to take off her facemask with BLM printed on it. She posted about the situation on Instagram and on Friday hundreds of people rallied outside the store to protest. Baker has since quit her job, according to her Instagram account.

Company policy prohibits employees from wearing clothing with any political or brand logo, a Whole Foods spokesperson told Berkeleyside last week. The lawsuit contends that the company may have that policy but routinely ignored it and let people wear clothing with rainbows and LGBTQ slogans.

“Whole Foods has not enforced its dress code policy that it now claims justifies its actions, and it has allowed employees to wear other messages, including political messages and support for LGBTQ+ employees, without repercussion,” reads the request for an injunction. “Only when employees began organizing to wear Black Lives Matter masks in the workplace did Whole Foods begin to enforce its nominal dress code policy in earnest.”

The company disciplined employees for wearing BLM masks and clothing, according to the lawsuit. Management sent employees home without pay, gave them disciplinary points, and forced them into retraining.

One employee in Massachusetts, Savannah Kinzer, was fired because of her insistence on wearing a Black Lives Matter mask, according to the lawsuit. She wore one to work on June 24 and was told to take it off or go home, according to Salon. She left but returned the next day and handed out BLM masks to fellow workers. When they were asked to take them off or leave, dozens walked out. She was later terminated, according to a press release.

A company spokesperson denied that Kinzer was fired because of wearing a BLM mask.

“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 company said 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. 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.”

people holding sign at protest
Call out to Jeff Bezos at Whole Foods protest on July 17, 2020. Photo: Nancy Rubin

The lawsuit claims that Whole Foods is violating the plaintiffs’ rights under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which “prohibits employers from discriminating against any individual ‘because of such individual’s race.’” Title VII also prohibits discrimination against those who support the “protected class,” and prohibits retaliation against people doing a protected activity, in this case, their right to speak, said Shannon Liss-Riordan, an attorney with Lichten & Liss-Riordan, which filed the suit.

“Whole Foods’ decision to discipline its workers for wearing Black Lives Matter masks and messaging is race discrimination because it is selectively enforcing its dress code in a way that discriminates against Black employees advocating for themselves and non-Black employees associated with them and expressing support for their Black coworkers,” according to the lawsuit.

The firm also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board stating that Whole Foods is interfering with worker actions to improve their working conditions, said Liss-Riordan.

The lawsuit named 14 plaintiffs in the case with the majority coming from Massachusetts. But as word get out, many more current and former Whole Foods employees are contacting the law firm to get added, said Liss-Riordan.

U.S. Senator Edward Markey from Massachusetts and Rep. Ayanna Pressley issued statements supporting the workers’s right to wear Black Lives Matter attire.

Assemblyperson Buffy Wicks tweeted her support of this issue as well.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...