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Racial bias claims vs. Whole Foods dismissed

A federal judge in Massachusetts has dismissed most of the claims in a lawsuit filed by Whole Foods Market employees who alleged the supermarket chain discriminated and retaliated against them when it barred them from wearing Black Lives Matter face coverings on the job.

More than two dozen current and former workers from 11 stores around the country accused Whole Foods of violating Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination based on race and other factors, in a lawsuit filed in Boston in July.

The workers, of various ethnic backgrounds, started wearing Black Lives Matters face coverings during the pandemic to show solidarity with the racial justice movement following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police last May.

In her decision, U.S. District Court Judge Allison D. Burroughs wrote that Whole Foods did not single out the workers based on race.

“To summarize, because no plaintiff alleges that he or she was discriminated against on account of his or her race or that he or she was discriminated against for advocating on behalf of a coworker who had been subject to discrimination, plaintiffs have failed to state a claim for discrimination,” the judge wrote.

Title VII, the judge wrote “prohibits discrimination against a person because of race. It does not protect one’s right to associate with a given social cause, even a race-related one, in the workplace.”

Whole Foods said the workers were disciplined for violating the company’s dress code, which prohibits slogans or logos not affiliated with the company.

Shannon Liss-Riordan, an attorney for the employees, said she thought Burroughs “misinterpreted and misapplied” Title VII law and pledged to keep pursuing the case. The plaintiffs will either appeal or return to the same judge to ask her to reconsider, the Boston lawyer said.

The judge did allow the retaliation claims of one former worker to move forward. That worker alleges she was fired from a Cambridge store for organizing protests and for filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

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