Court Battles

Judge tosses workers’ claims against Whole Foods over Black Lives Matter masks

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A federal judge on Friday dismissed nearly every component of a lawsuit filed against mega natural food store chain Whole Foods after employees accused the company of selectively enforcing its dress code by banning “Black Lives Matter” face masks, Reuters reports.

Last summer, the Whole Foods in Cambridge, Mass., drew criticism after sending seven of its employees home for wearing face masks with the slogan “Black Lives Matter” on them.

Protesters led a boycott of the store in solidarity of the employees, who claimed the company was trying not to alienate customers.

“They don’t really want to choose a side,” Suverino Frith, one of the workers that the Cambridge store sent home, said at the time.

A Whole Foods spokesperson previously told The Hill that under its dress code, employees are banned from wearing non company-related slogans or messages, including on their protective face masks.

“Team members with face masks that do not comply with dress code are always offered new face masks,” the spokesperson said. “Team members are unable to work until the comply with dress code.”

The spokesperson also noted the $10 million donation Amazon, which owns Whole Foods, made to support racial justice causes.

In a national lawsuit, 27 people accused Whole Foods of acting illegally with its selective dress code enforcement, claiming that the company would often let employees wear masks with political messages or ones that represent sports franchises while on the clock. When they wore Black Lives Matter masks, however, they would get sent home without pay or face other disciplinary actions, Reuters reports.

In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs stated that Whole Foods and Amazon could not be convicted of illegal racial discrimination. 

“At worst, they were selectively enforcing a dress code to suppress certain speech in the workplace,” she wrote, according to Reuters. “However unappealing that might be, it is not conduct made unlawful by Title VII.”

The judge’s ruling allows one plaintiff to pursue a retaliation claim. For the rest of the employees, Burroughs suggested they petition Whole Foods to change its dress code, express themselves elsewhere or seek alternative employment, according to Reuters.

“We remain dedicated to ensuring our team members feel safe and free from discrimination and retaliation at Whole Foods Market,” a Whole Foods spokesperson told The Hill. “We agree with the court’s decision and appreciate their time and attention.”

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