Cambridge, MA – A federal judge tossed out much of the lawsuit filed by a group of Whole Foods employees who claimed the company discriminated against them by refusing to let them wear Black Lives Matter (BLM) face masks.
The Whole Foods grocery chain, which is owned by Amazon, has a no-slogan dress code barring all employees from wearing any “visible slogans, messages, logos or advertising” unrelated to the company, according to Reuters.
But according to a group of employees at the store in Cambridge, the policy was only enforced after they started wearing their BLM masks to work, Insider reported.
Those who refused to stop wearing their BLM masks were sent home without pay or faced other disciplinary action, according to The Hill.
“Team members with face masks that do not comply with dress code are always offered new face masks,” a Whole Foods spokesperson later told The Hill. “Team members are unable to work until they comply with dress code.”
Fourteen employees filed a lawsuit against their employer in July of 2020, claiming the company discriminated against them, Insider reported.
Some also alleged they were targeted because of their BLM garb.
A total of 27 employees ultimately joined in the lawsuit.
U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs ruled on Feb. 5 that Whole Foods had inconsistently enforced its no-slogan dress code policy, but said the “inconsistent enforcement” did not amount to racial discrimination, Insider reported.
“Title VII prohibits discrimination against a person because of race,” Burroughs said in her ruling. “It does not protect one’s right to associate with a given social cause, even a race-related one, in the workplace.”
Free speech in a private workplace is also not protected under Title VII, which is also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Insider reported.
“At worst, they were selectively enforcing a dress code to suppress certain speech in the workplace,” Burroughs wrote, according to Reuters. “However unappealing that might be, it is not conduct made unlawful by Title VII.”
Burroughs said that employees who don’t agree with Whole Foods’ uniform policy “can find somewhere else to work,” or they could also try to collaborate with the chain to establish an updated policy, Insider reported.
The employees’ attorney, Shannon Liss-Riordan, said they will likely appeal Burrough’s ruling, Reuters reported.
Liss-Riordan said the judge’s decision “goes against the tide of case law recognizing the critical importance of eradicating race discrimination from worksites across our country.”
Burroughs also opted on Friday to permit a retaliation complaint filed by an employee who was fired by the company to continue, Insider reported.
That case was filed by now-former Whole Foods employee Savannah Kinzer, who was terminated after she racked up “points” for wearing her BLM mask, according to Burroughs.
Kinzer further alleged she was fired for filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as for calling on her fellow employees to wear the BLM masks at work, Insider reported.
“Given her burden at this stage, Plaintiff Kinzer has alleged facts sufficient to plausibly infer that her termination was causally linked to protected activity,” Burroughs ruled on Friday.
Whole Foods and Amazon have noted that they have openly expressed their support for BLM, Reuters reported.
Amazon previously made a $10 million donation to the group, according to The Hill.
Whole Foods has maintained that its dress code policy is “facially neutral” and that the company has “zero tolerance” for retaliation, Reuters reported.
“We remain dedicated to ensuring our team members feel safe and free from discrimination and retaliation at Whole Foods Market,” a company spokesperson told The Hill after Burroughs’ ruling last week. “We agree with the court’s decision and appreciate their time and attention.”