Swedish and Starbucks allow it. QFC and Bartell Drugs do not. The grocery union is willing to fight about it, legal experts say it’s federally protected and some customers think it’s a reason to change where they shop.
It’s the Black Lives Matters logo, whose presence on everything from buttons and shirts to masks and pins has created workplace tensions at many businesses.
“I’m disappointed and angry we aren’t allowed to show support for [what] we believe in,” said a worker at a Seattle-area location of the Shari’s Restaurant chain in response to a reader survey by The Seattle Times. A Shari’s spokesperson said no logos of any kind are permitted on employees’ clothing, and buttons and pins are not allowed for “safety reasons and consistency.”
While many business are embracing the issue — or, at least, coming to terms with it — others say politics doesn’t belong in the workplace.
“It makes me incredibly proud that so many of our employees are civically engaged,” says Molly Moon Neitzel, owner of the eponymously named ice-cream stores, where workers are allowed to wear BLM logos.
“My employees can do what they want on their own time but not when I am paying them,” counters George Schlosser at K9 Korral kennel and doggy daycare in Lake Stevens. He says he tells workers on their first day they can’t wear “apparel with any political sayings, not even ‘Jesus Christ for Dogcatcher.’ ”
Although there are no hard and fast rules on which employers do or don’t allow BLM symbols at work, a few patterns are apparent.
Many national or regional chains forbid the logo, often as part of existing dress codes or restrictions on overt political or non-company related symbols.
Kroger, the national grocery giant that owns QFC and Fred Meyer, has an official dress code that “prohibits lettering, logos, wearing unauthorized buttons, badges, or patches, or any clothing that is considered unsuitable for the workplace,” said spokesperson Kelli McGannon. Last month, some employees at Seattle-area QFC and Fred Meyer stores say they were asked by supervisors to remove BLM buttons.
Likewise for Home Depot, which has “always prohibited non-company logos and slogans,” a spokesperson said. Seattle-based Bartell Drugs, which has 67 locations in the Puget Sound region, doesn’t allow any pins or buttons that the company itself hasn’t provided, according to a spokesperson.
Costco, headquartered in Issaquah, and Whole Foods, owned by Amazon, both declined requests for comment on their BLM logo policies; but employees at both companies’ retail outlets have said they’ve been asked by managers not to wear the BLM logo at work, according to media reports.
Trader Joe’s, which also did not to respond to requests for comment on its BLM policy, has also been accused on social media by people claiming to be employees of sending workers home for refusing to take off Black Lives Matter pins and masks.
Amazon Go workers, meanwhile, “are required to wear a standard Amazon uniform while working,” said a spokesperson, who declined to specify whether that policy precluded wearing BLM logos.
By contrast, some smaller, locally owned groceries and other businesses were OK with BLM symbols in the workplace.
PCC Community Markets lets its approximately 1,700 employees wear BLM buttons — and even provides BLM buttons of its own, a spokesperson said.
Central Co-op, with locations in Seattle and Tacoma, also allows the BLM message at work. Employees aren’t allowed to wear “overtly political or offensive messaging on their clothing, but we don’t believe that statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement are either political or offensive,” said Aaron Waldkoetter, Central Co-op’s marketing director.
Swedish not only allows BLM logos at work, but is also providing a BLM button adorned with the Swedish logo, said spokesperson Tiffany Moss.
But there are plenty of exceptions to this pattern.
Starbucks, the Seattle-based global coffee chain, initially prohibited BLM logos at work in June, but changed course after a wave of criticism and now even offers its own BLM-themed shirt for employees.
Safeway, though it declined to respond to questions about its BLM logo policy, reportedly has “clarified” with members of its union “that the current contract and law allow members to wear” union-provided Black Lives Matter buttons, said Tom Geiger, a spokesperson at the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 21. The union represents around 25,000 grocery workers in the Puget Sound area, including at Safeway, Fred Meyer, and QFC.
Certainly, some customers appreciate a no-politics policy, judging by many readers responses to a recent Seattle Times survey.
Many wanted their shopping experience to be politics-free. If a button or pin is “not related to work, I don’t think they should be wearing them,” said Ron Linden, a Quincy-area resident. “At that point, you’re kind of pushing it on the customers, and if they don’t agree with it, does that mean they have to shop somewhere else?”
But other readers were pro-logo. “When I heard about QFC/Fred Meyer not allowing employees to wear BLM buttons, I was disgusted and am choosing to no longer shop there,” said Marlow Mercer of Seattle.
“I understand why employers would want employees not to wear political wearables at work, but I feel that ending systemic racism should be a common shared goal that every American should support,” said Seattle resident Kathryn Adams-Lee. “Time is way overdue for addressing it.”
The explanations for company BLM policies vary widely. Many businesses say they fear offending customers at a time when the economy is already struggling. “As divided as we are politically, we could easily lose it all if we start upsetting those customers,” says Schlosser, the kennel owner.
Starbucks initially banned the BLM logo out of fear that it might be exploited by “agitators” to “amplify divisiveness,” according an internal memo obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Similarly, Costco CEO Craig Jelinek reportedly told some employees that while “he believes Black lives do, indeed, matter, if he permitted Black Lives Matter–related gear in the workplace, he would also have to allow other slogans such as ‘All Lives Matter,'” according to a report in Black Enterprise.
There are also legal restrictions on what employees can demand to wear at work — and what employers can do about it.
For example, government employers that try to ban political logos in the workplace might be violating workers’ constitutionally protected freedom of expression, especially if the ban isn’t “content-neutral,” says Seattle employment law attorney Daniel Kalish, with HKM Employment Attorneys.
By contrast, although private employers have considerable power over employees’ apparel, there are exceptions, Kalish says. If a logo is protected under a union contract or if it relates to a workplace issue, a ban may violate a collective bargaining agreement or the federal National Labor Relations Act, Kalish says.
Such legal questions will be key in the unfair labor practices complaint that UFCW has filed against Kroger over the bans at QFC and Fred Meyer, says Geiger. And the fact that some employees experience racism in the workplace means the BLM logo is very much related to a workplace issue, he adds.
In the meantime, some employers see little reason to start a fight in the first place.
Central Market, which has locations in Shoreline, Poulsbo, and Mill Creek, decided to allow employees to wear BLM logos out of a mix of genuine sentiment but also simple pragmatism, says Julie Yari, the store’s human resources director.
“It just wasn’t worth having a fight with the union over something the company generally supports anyway,” Yari said.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.