The supermarket chain insists that it has a "zero-tolerance" policy for retaliation.

By Jelisa Castrodale
July 21, 2020
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Demonstrators stand in front of Whole Foods Market to support workers who walked out in solidarity after getting dismissed from Whole Foods for wearing Black Lives Matter face masks in Cambridge, MA on July 18, 2020.
Boston Globe / Contributor/Getty Images

Last month, Savannah Ginzer, an employee at a Whole Foods store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, started an online petition encouraging the grocery chain to allow its workers to wear Black Livers Matter face masks during their shifts. "We demand that Whole Foods Market allow its employees and representatives to outwardly demonstrate the same solidarity with the 'Black community' that the company itself claims to show in its media and marketing statements," she wrote on Change.org.

Ginzer's petition followed several days of employee walkouts, after more than a dozen workers at that Whole Foods location were reportedly sent home for wearing masks with slogans or designs that supported the Black Lives Matter movement.

The conflict over those face coverings has now escalated to a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Ginzer and 14 other workers at six Whole Foods locations, alleging that they were fired or faced other disciplinary action for their support of Black Lives Matter. The lawsuit alleges that Whole Foods "unlawfully retaliated" against the employees for opposing "its unlawful and discriminatory practices."

"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 said in a statement. According to Boston.com, the 23-year-old says that she was fired by Whole Foods on Saturday after informing her managers about the upcoming legal filing.

Whole Foods has repeatedly emphasized that its "longstanding" dress code for all employees specifically prohibits any item of clothing with "visible slogans, messages, logos, or advertising" that are not related to the supermarket itself.

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But the lawsuit alleges "selective enforcement" of the dress code, suggesting that some Whole Foods team members were allowed to wear apparel with sports logos, other slogans, and even political messages without facing disciplinary action. (The legal filing also suggests that it was totally fine for some workers to wear masks featuring pictures of SpongeBob or with the "images and names of vegetables," along with assorted other prints and patterns.)

"Employees have worn pins or flags supporting their LGBTQ colleagues with no repercussions. Another employee wore a pin that said 'Lock him up,' which could be interpreted as political," Shannon Liss-Riordan, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, told CBS News. "Whole Foods was not enforcing its so-called dress policy until its employees started putting on their Black Lives Matter masks. That's discrimination against Black employees and other employees who are supporting their Black coworkers and advocating for them in the workplace."

In a statement to Food & Wine, a Whole Foods spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit directly, but said that none of its employees had been fired for wearing face masks or clothing that demonstrated their support for Black Lives Matter. "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," the statement read.

"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." The statement also said that the chain has "zero-tolerance" for retaliation. "We recognize, respect, and take steps to ensure we do not impinge on employees’ legal rights," the spokesperson wrote.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are seeking an end to Whole Foods' policy of not allowing its team members to wear Black Lives Matter apparel. They are also asking for the chain to "expunge any [disciplinary action] accumulated" by workers who were sanctioned for wearing Black Lives Matter apparel, and for back pay for any employees who were sent home for wearing a Black Lives Matter face coverings. Kinzer would very much like to have her job back, too.