Workers speak out against Black Lives Matter face mask bans, as companies like Starbucks, Taco Bell, and Whole Foods grapple with viral backlash

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Savannah Kinzer reads a statement after leading a group of fellow employees in a walkout at Whole Foods in Cambridge, Massachusetts,

Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images


  • Restaurant and retail employees are fighting for the right to wear Black Lives Matter masks and t-shirts to work.
  • Some companies, such as Whole Foods and Chick-fil-A, are banning employees from wearing BLM gear. 
  • Others, such as Starbucks and Wawa, have reversed course after initially prohibiting items supportive of the movement.
  • “We now have a generation of workers who will push traditional boundaries and test the company’s commitments,” said Jacinta Gauda, the principal at communications firm The Gauda Group.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As the pandemic stretches on, face masks have become a safeguard for restaurant and retail workers across the US. Now, for some employees, the masks have increasingly become a chance to speak out against racism in America. 

Employees at some of the largest chains in the US are wearing Black Lives Matter face masks and shirts on the job, following the death of George Floyd and protests against racism that swept the US.

Workers at fast-food chains including Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A have pushed back against management after being told they could not wear Black Lives Matter masks. Employees at grocery stores including Publix and Whole Foods have spoken out after they were banned from wearing Black Lives Matter masks and anti-racism shirts. 

“It is possible it’s uncomfortable for people, but it’s not political,” said Savannah Kinzer, who was sent home from work for wearing a BLM mask at a Whole Foods store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It’s human rights. It is a simple, simple statement: Black lives matter, that’s it. They matter.”

As employees wear Black Lives Matter masks and other merchandise to work, companies are being forced to make a choice.

Will they backtrack and let employees wear Black Lives Matter masks, or even create their own merchandise to allow employees to show support? Or, will they argue that these masks and shirts fall outside of what is an appropriate work uniform, risking viral backlash and boycotts? 

A wave of CEOs spoke out in support of Black Lives Matter amid protests

Protests swept the US in recent weeks.

Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images


George Floyd’s death sparked a wave of statements from companies and CEOs supporting protests against racial inequality in early June. 

As fast-food chains flooded social media with corporate statements, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy posted a message on LinkedIn, calling for people to “join together to build a world that reflects God’s love for all of us.” The fast-food chain, which stopped donations to controversial groups including the Salvation Army last year, said it would boost its financial investments in Atlanta’s Westside district. 

“There are countless academics and analysts who have written about how our democratic capitalism benefits only a few hundred incredibly wealthy families, individuals and corporations so that the American dream is now reserved almost exclusively for them and their descendants,” Cathy wrote. “Because I am among that demographic, I am calling on them — us — to use our power and influence.”

Whole Foods’ parent company Amazon similarly spoke out in support of Black Lives Matter during the protests. The company donated $10 million to organizations focused on racial justice and equity and ran a “Black Lives Matter” banner on Amazon’s homepage. CEO Jeff Bezos responded to people who took issue with the company’s support on social media. 

“Black lives matter speaks to the racism and the disproportionate risk that Black people face in our law enforcement and justice system,” Bezos wrote in one Instagram post. “None of this is intended to dismiss or minimize the very real worries you or anyone else might have in their own life, but I want you to know I support this movement that we see happening all around us and my stance won’t change.”

With top leadership speaking out, some employees believed that they could also take a stand to similarly support Black Lives Matter. Instead, many employees quickly faced repercussions. 

Workers donned masks to show support — and faced the consequences

Whole Foods.

Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images


Bailey Nelson, a 19-year-old college student, told Business Insider that she decided to wear a Black Lives Matter mask to work at her job at a Marrero, Louisiana, Chick-fil-A after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. At the time, she said, she was not aware of any policy that would prevent her from doing so.

Nelson said she wanted to wear the mask to help humanize the Black Lives Matter movement for Chick-fil-A customers. She didn’t think “Black Lives Matter” should be seen as a controversial statement, especially because she and most of her coworkers at Chick-fil-A are Black. 

“Because Chick-fil-A’s policy is about being very kind to customers … if they connect the Black Lives Matter movement to a girl who was really nice to them taking their order, who made their day telling a joke — it might be different than just this disconnect of seeing it only when connected to a violent protest,” Nelson said. 

After wearing the mask to work for three days, Nelson was told it violated Chick-fil-A’s policy. The policy, which Nelson said she was not aware of previously, bans logos, statements, symbols, and quotes of any kind, according to Chick-fil-A. 

Soon after, Nelson had her hours cut. She said she was told it was due to a uniform violation because she wore a nose ring at work, but she believes it was linked to her Black Lives Matter mask. The apparent expectation for her and other Chick-fil-A employees to remain neutral is hurtful, especially after Chick-fil-A’s CEO said he supported protesters, she said. 

“I think a lot of people try to make this a political issue, and it’s just not,” Nelson said. “It shouldn’t be a political issue.” 

Nelson is far from the only worker to argue that Black Lives Matter masks and shirts are workplace appropriate.

Five employees of various Whole Foods stores in Michigan, Connecticut, and North Carolina told Business Insider that they had worn Black Live Matter gear, and were told by management to remove it or leave work.

“It breaks my heart knowing that the company and store I’ve been with for over three years, the company I’ve loved and been dearly proud of, is taking this route. I hope that the store and the rest of the company comes to their senses,” said a North Carolina Whole Foods employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “I’ve always seen Whole Foods Market as an inclusive and accepting company, and I know some parts of the company still are, but if they aren’t going to take a stand against hatred and discrimination, then I really don’t know if I can work for this company anymore.”

Meanwhile, Taco Bell apologized to an employee who was fired for wearing a Black Lives Matter mask, saying that it was not actually against the company’s policy. 

“Increasingly, workers want to be heard, and wearing a mask, t-shirt, or hat with a powerful message gives workers voice,” said Jacinta Gauda, the principal at communications firm The Gauda Group. Her communications firm works on branding, strategy, and diversity and inclusion. “In today’s workplace, it is essential to give all workers a safe, risk-free way to communicate their concerns and experiences around racial issues.”

Companies are being forced to decide when employees can and can’t speak out

Protest.

Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images


The responses from the fast-food chain and Whole Foods show one path forward for companies — reinforcing uniforms and dress codes similar to what existed before recent protests. 

Whole Foods has said that its “longstanding dress code” prohibits clothing with visible slogans, messages, logos, or advertising that are not company-related.

“In an effort to enable Team Members to continue working their scheduled shifts, we always offer them the opportunity to comply with dress code, including providing new face masks when necessary,” the company said. “If they choose not to accept the alternatives, they cannot work until they are in compliance with our company policy.”

Chick-fil-A declined to comment on the specifics of Nelson’s experience. 

Wendy Greene, a lawyer focusing on employment and discrimination and a professor at Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, said that private employers would typically be given “considerable latitude in regulating an employee’s dress while working.” However, enforcement of anti-Black Lives Matter gear policies could trigger employee protections.

“For example, if an employer disallows Black employees from wearing Black Lives Matter paraphernalia yet permits non-Black employees to wear paraphernalia advancing other social justice causes, the employer can be subject to a race discrimination claim,” Greene said. 

However, Greene says that ultimately companies should shift thinking away from legal repercussions for dress codes or grooming policies and toward ethical concerns — especially as CEOs put out corporate statements. 

“Employers should appreciate that instituting these grooming policies may communicate to employees and the public that their stated commitments and other efforts to combat anti-racism, and anti-Black racism, in particular, are insincere and performative,” Greene said. 

Some companies are backtracking to follow employees’ examples

Starbucks.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke


While Whole Foods and Chick-fil-A have doubled down on dress code policies for now, other brands have followed workers’ leads. 

In June, Wawa changed its policy to allow workers to wear Black Lives Matter pins, after originally banning employees from wearing masks or anything else with Black Lives Matter written on it. Starbucks similarly changed its policy, lifting a ban on Black Lives Matter gear and creating a new shirt for employees that will “to demonstrate our allyship and show we stand together in unity,” according to a company memo from June.

“Until these arrive, we’ve heard you want to show your support, so just be you. Wear your BLM pin or t-shirt. We are so proud of your passionate support of our common humanity,” the memo continued. “We trust you to do what’s right while never forgetting Starbucks is a welcoming third place where all are treated with dignity and respect.”

Gauda said that brands should prepare for more pushback from workers, as employees increasingly expect companies to take a stance on social issues. 

“We now have a generation of workers who will push traditional boundaries and test the company’s commitments,” Gauda said. “Simply communicating the ‘what’, ‘when’, and ‘how’ of a dress code policy is not enough. Employers must take the time to communicate the ‘why’ of the policy to its workers.”

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