Victor King took a job at Whole Foods' Chelsea location last August, only after receiving assurance that his supervisors would be sensitive to the fact that he is a transgender man—but for six months, he was repeatedly subject to harassment by his coworkers and supervisors, who refused to accept him as male and retaliated when he reported their remarks, according to a lawsuit filed this week in Manhattan federal court.
When King, a 21-year-old Bronx resident, started working at the store at the end of August, he had already changed his name and begun hormone therapy. However, the Social Security Administration had not yet processed his name change, and it was on those grounds that Whole Foods' Human Resources department refused to accept his name as Victor Alexander, even after a court order, his suit alleges.
That was just the start of what would prove to be a trying six months of employment: shortly after he began work, his coworkers allegedly began to refer to him as "she," "her," or "it"; in one instance described in the suit, his coworker Pria Minickchen told a customer to "give it to he/she/it/whatever it is." A customer service supervisor named Quadry Scott allegedly told him that "I know you're not a guy, I am not going to refer to you as a guy," and King's Team Leader laughed at that comment, which made King feel like he couldn't bring his concerns to him, according to court papers.
Finally, in December, King says that he reported the discrimination to his Regional Manager, who told him to make a complaint with another Team Leader in the store. That supervisor in turn failed to take any action, the suit alleges. King then sought help elsewhere: he'd gotten the job through the Ali Forney Center, which provides housing and support to LGBT youth, and a career developer at the center got in touch with Whole Foods' regional management. As a result, King's supervisors had to go through sensitivity training in February 2016.
After that mandated sensitivity training, things only got worse for King, according to his complaint: his supervisors allegedly retaliated against him by refusing to talk to him or tell him which register to work—and then only speaking to him to inform him he was working at the wrong register.
By March, it was getting to be too much: King had a breakdown in one of the store's bathrooms and says that he once more begged his supervisor for help. He wound up quitting in early March, after the only solution the supervisor offered was to move him to another store, according to his complaint.
"After all, if the Whole Foods in Chelsea was this hostile, why would any other be more inviting?" the suit questions. "It is also a terrible solution to punish the only innocent person in order to avoid addressing the offending staff and managers."
The lawsuit states that Whole Foods violated the New York City Human Rights Law, which requires that employers use an individual's preferred name, pronoun, and title, regardless of sex, anatomy, gender, or medical history; the NYCHRL also prohibits discriminatory harassment based on gender identity or expression in the workplace.
"Whole Foods Market just received the lawsuit and is currently reviewing the claims," Whole Foods PR representative Michael Sinatra said in a statement. "As a company, we have long celebrated diversity and acceptance and have zero tolerance for discrimination. Our diverse and inclusive culture is reflected in our team member base, including our leadership, as well as in community partnerships here in New York City."
Sinatra did not respond to inquiries about the sensitivity training provided to Whole Foods employees.
This isn't the first time Whole Foods has been sued by employees alleging discrimination; the store has also come under fire in New York City from customers claiming that they were overcharged for pre-packaged foods.