After Costco began requiring all employees to start wearing masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in late April, some chose the logos of their favorite teams, Harry Potter characters, or colorful designs and patterns, while others picked styles with a message, such as glittering rainbows for Pride and black, white, and blue American flags synonymous with supporting police. No one objected, said employees at several of Costco’s nearly 550 US warehouses.
But that changed last month, during the nationwide protests against racism and police brutality.
Now employees say that despite its public statements about supporting Black employees, the company is selectively enforcing an otherwise-ignored dress code — and even invoking anti-harassment policies — to punish workers who wear Black Lives Matter apparel. One employee took to social media to post an outraged letter of resignation to the company’s CEO. Another started a petition, which has to date gathered nearly 600 signatures.
After the death of George Floyd, the company’s CEO, Craig Jelinek, wrote to employees that the company remained “committed to taking care of our employees, building a diverse workforce,” and “treating each other in a fair, honest, respectful and inclusive way.”
So when Niko Bracy, a cashier at a Costco warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, heard that six of his colleagues sent home for wearing Black Lives Matter masks — which he says he considers a basic “statement of equality” — he wrote a letter to Jelinek announcing his resignation.
“As a citizen of the United States of America, I have a right to refuse to dedicate my time, my labor, and my talents to a company that believes I am essential enough to risk my life, but not essential enough to stand against my death.”
The Louisville workers who were sent home do not appear to be an isolated case. In addition to the six workers there, five employees at Costco warehouses in Delaware, Chicago, and New Jersey have all said they were sent home or ordered to ditch BLM masks or suffer repercussions, including potential suspensions — in some cases even as other coworkers were allowed to wear masks with pro-police messages. Their expressions of frustration to managers didn’t amount to much, but Bracy’s letter, which he also posted to Facebook along with some of his colleagues’ complaints, had a dramatic effect, spurring the CEO of the $140 billion company to fly from Seattle to Louisville this week to personally meet with workers and discuss the controversy.
For well over three hours on Thursday morning, Jelinek met with seven aggrieved workers, listening to their experiences and concerns about what they see as systemic racism in the workplace. He responded that he believes Black lives do, indeed, matter, but added that if he permitted Black Lives Matter–related gear in the workplace, he would also have to allow other slogans such as “All Lives Matter.”
Costco declined to comment on the matter.
As millions of Americans have raised their voices in protest over racial injustice and police killings of Black people over the past six weeks, corporate America has been facing a reckoning over what employees — and a growing share of the public — feel are unfair, hypocritical, and potentially biased policies toward employees’ self-expression.
Starbucks last month reversed its stance on Black Lives Matter clothing and masks after BuzzFeed News reported that the coffee behemoth had been preventing workers from wearing them. Taco Bell apologized after a worker in Ohio was fired for wearing his BLM mask. Boycotts against Whole Foods have been growing after its Cambridge store sent a group of employees home for wearing BLM masks. Trader Joe’s has also been facing backlash for refusing to let its employees wear clothing that supports the movement.
In contrast to those and other major retailers, Costco has kept a relatively low profile when it comes to voicing its support for Black Lives Matter. Other than Jelinek's early June letter, the company has not taken a public stance on the topic. Internal company communications reveal an emphasis on remaining “neutral” so as to not upset Costco’s 100 million strong annual-fee-paying member base, which tends to skew older and whiter.
But for many workers, the company’s relatively quiet response to the movement — and its willingness to discipline workers for wearing BLM apparel — feels like a slap in the face.
Kirsten Doan is one of about 20 Black employees who work at Costco’s warehouse on Bardstown Road in Louisville. Inspired by a colleague who had started wearing a BLM mask in mid-June, she decided to come to work with one of her own. But soon after the 22-year-old cashier arrived, managers pulled her off the floor and ordered her to remove it.
In audio recordings of that conversation reviewed by BuzzFeed News, the managers told Doan and other employees that Black Lives Matter attire qualifies as “political ideology” that prevents employees from remaining “neutral while on the clock.” When employees insisted that the masks weren’t political or derogatory, managers read aloud the company’s entire anti-harassment policy.
A BLM mask could “cause hostility between other people,” one manager told Doan.
“I want you to know we don’t enjoy any of this,” the manager said. “I have Black friends, you know. I’ve hung around a lot of Black people. I’ve had a Black friend on my boat.”
For Doan, the entire incident felt like a violation of the very company policy being cited. “I felt like an outcast,” Doan said of the meeting. “I felt harassed and discriminated against. This isn’t political. It’s personal.”
About a dozen employees at 12 other warehouses also told BuzzFeed News that they've been allowed to wear whatever masks they want, including ones with skulls and liquor brands like Crown Royal. But managers told them that BLM face coverings violated Costco standards, and some read aloud corporate “talking points” to explain the decision.
“Given the current social and political climate, we recognize that applying these guidelines can be challenging when it comes to pictures and writing on clothing and other items. To maintain the standards going forward, we expect that attire will be free from pictures or writing or items deemed political or controversial in nature,” the corporate directive states, according to the audio recordings.
Several workers and a supervisor who attended such meetings said they asked for copies of the updated dress code policy to get a better sense of which slogans or logos were allowed and which were not, but were refused, leaving them in the dark as to exactly what apparel might violate company policy.
Regardless, employees argue that supporting Black Lives Matter is not political, nor should it be seen as controversial, especially given Jelinek’s June letter stating that “all individuals and organizations can use this moment as a catalyst for change.” Costco, Jelinek wrote, will not tolerate “racism, discrimination or harassment” and at the same time would improve by “listening to each other’s perspectives with respect, patience and humility.”
The statement felt particularly hollow to Louisville employees in light of the company’s handling of a white deli supervisor who had allegedly used the n-word at work several months ago. Although multiple complaints had been filed, Costco didn’t take action until late June, demoting the woman and moving her to a different department — actions that many employees felt were too little and too late.
Word of the incident reached the company’s highest levels. In an email chain dated June 28, Jelinek discussed the deli supervisor’s action and the company’s response, writing, “I can’t say I agreed with the final decision.”
Just a day earlier, managers at a Costco warehouse in Bridgewater, New Jersey, told Andy Wagnac, a cashier’s assistant, that he had to remove his Black Lives Matter mask. He and other colleagues had witnessed colleagues wearing pro-police Blue Lives Matter masks without reprimand, and balked at the inequity of the situation.
Wagnac, who is Black, started a petition, demanding that Costco stop silencing Black Lives Matter and stand with its Black employees.
He and many other Costco employees have voiced the opinion that as essential workers who have risked their health during the viral pandemic, they deserve consistent and fair application of company standards — and recognition that Black Lives Matter is a matter of basic human rights. Wagnac, who has been with Costco for three years and like many workers long appreciated its relatively generous pay and benefits policies, feels betrayed.
“They are not with us,” the 21-year old said. “They are afraid of losing money over standing for our identity.”
Last Sunday, a group of workers in Louisville hosted an event inviting members to come and shop while wearing Black Lives Matter masks. They were heartened by the response — about 20 employees and members in BLM face coverings came to the store that day, and no one was punished. That was a few days before the CEO’s visit, and workers expressed optimism that a company known for its buttoned-down culture might finally be open to change.
But after the long conversation with Costco’s top executive, which took place in a makeshift break room early Thursday, that optimism faded.
“He just sincerely doesn’t get it,” said one of the employees who attended the meeting and requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. “We sat down with the face of the company today, and left defeated.”