Whole Foods denies an immigrant employee an interview, and is hit with a discrimination lawsuit.
Mark Opio, 36, who spent almost a decade living in a refugee camp, immigrated to Maine twenty years ago. He recently applied for a position as an assistant team leader at Whole Foods and received an invitation for a panel interview. However, he has alleged in a new lawsuit that the company canceled this appointment because Opio couldn’t read the store’s operations manual – a claim he says is untrue. The suit also contends a manager “told Opio that he hadn’t done enough to prove himself to others in the department where he hoped to work and failed to get co-workers to accept you as one of them.”
Under state law, a ruling from the Maine Human Rights Commission (MHRC) is required in order to file a discrimination lawsuit. In fall of last year, MHRC found “reasonable grounds to believe that Whole Foods discriminated against Mark Opio on the basis of race, color, ancestry, and/or national origin.” There were “no reasonable grounds to believe that Whole Foods and/or Amazon retaliated against Mark Opio for engaging in WPA- and/or MHRA-protected activity.”
Opio commented, “I felt like I had achieved the American Dream, and I believed that, in America, anyone had a chance to succeed if they were willing to work hard and be judged on the quality of their work. But when Whole Foods denied me the chance to even interview for a leadership position, it made me question all that. It makes me wonder if I will always be treated like a second-class citizen in America.”
His attorney, Carol J. Garvan of the Portland firm of Johnson, Webbert & Garvan, added, “Opio worked in Whole Foods’ meat department for seven years until 2015, when he moved to Canada for a few years.” The complaint continues, “He left Whole Foods to seek employment where he would have a fair chance to move up in the company and earn recognition for his hard work and education. Mr. Opio would not have left Whole Foods if he had received the promotion.”
Opio, who became a U.S. citizen in 2007, has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management from the University of Southern Maine. After he was notified that his interview was canceled, the company reportedly hired a white male with less than two years’ experience. Opio gave his two-week notice to the company on Sept. 26, 2019, according to the complaint. He is seeking back pay and damages, as well as the introduction of a requirement for managers to take civil rights training.
The company has faced similar litigation as of late. In February of this year, a federal trial judge dismissed most of a discrimination lawsuit filed by former employees at a Whole Foods Market in Cambridge. The lawsuit, which was originally filed in summer 2020, claimed the company “illegally barred employees from wearing protective masks that read “Black Lives Matter.” The plaintiffs said Whole Foods violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“At worst,” Boston federal court Judge Allison Burroughs wrote, “they were selectively enforcing a dress code to suppress certain speech in the workplace. However unappealing that might be, it is not conduct made unlawful by Title VII.”