Whole Foods punishes workers wearing Black Lives Matter face masks: lawsuit

(Reuters) - Whole Foods Market was sued on Monday by employees who accused the upscale grocery chain of punishing workers who wear “Black Lives Matter” face masks on the job.

FILE PHOTO: Charles Thompson, an employee who says he was written up for wearing an "I Can't Breathe" mask last week, protests with coworkers outside the South Lake Union Whole Foods against store management not allowing workers to wear Black Lives Matter apparel in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Seattle, Washington, U.S. June 25, 2020. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

The 14 plaintiffs in the proposed nationwide class action accused Whole Foods, a unit of Inc AMZN.O, of sending workers home without pay or imposing disciplinary actions for wearing the masks and related apparel.

Whole Foods said the masks violate its longstanding dress code banning clothing with “visible slogans, messages, logos or advertising” unrelated to the company.

But the complaint filed in Boston federal court said Whole Foods has selectively enforced its code, and seeks an injunction to stop it from targeting Black Lives Matter supporters.

Savannah Kinzer, a white plaintiff, said she was fired on Saturday after organizing co-workers in protest at a Whole Foods in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Many companies are making enthusiastic statements about how they support Black Lives Matter and protests that have shaken up the country,” Shannon Liss-Riordan, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an interview. “Whole Foods and Amazon have portrayed themselves as champions of racial justice, but when their employees try to speak out, they get muzzled.”

A Whole Foods spokeswoman declined to discuss the lawsuit, but said the company has “zero tolerance” for retaliation. She also said Kinzer was fired for lateness and missing shifts.

Kinzer disputed this, and said Whole Foods has let employees wear masks bearing political messages and sports team logos, and let her wear a mask with the phrase “Soup is Good,” without incident.

The plaintiffs come from four states, and several racial and ethnic backgrounds. More plaintiffs are expected.

Black Lives Matter protests gained new strength after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, where a police officer pinned his neck to the ground.

On June 3, Amazon said “Black lives matter” and announced a $10 million donation to social justice organizations.

The case is Frith et al v Whole Foods Market Inc, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts, No. 20-11358.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Matthew Lewis