Quinton Desamours was emotional after attending his first protest in downtown Fort Myers. The speeches about participating in a nationwide movement against oppression had been so inspiring, he cried.
So the next day, June 6, the 18-year-old scribbled “BLM”— for Black Lives Matter — on the front of his surgical mask and clocked into work at Publix on Lee Boulevard in Lehigh Acres.
His manager quickly pulled him aside and told him to go home.
“He said I was putting myself and the rest of the employees in danger and he couldn’t have me out on the floor with that mask on,” Desamours said, whose story was first reported in the Fort Myers News-Press. So he quit.
As protests against police brutality and systemic racism continue across the country, some major retailers have been drawn into controversy over whether it is acceptable for employees to publicly express support for Black Lives Matter while at work.
Publix has disavowed racism and expressed its commitment to diversity among its more than 220,000 employees. “Like you, I’m saddened and unsettled by any racial injustice or events that divide our country,” wrote CEO Todd Jones in a letter to staff.
But the company said employees are only allowed to wear approved face coverings — and that didn’t leave room for Black Lives Matter masks.
“Our uniform policy does not permit non-Publix messaging on clothing or accessories,” said Publix spokesperson Maria Brous.
Starbucks took a similar stance — then reversed their policy on Friday after facing online backlash. Employees are now permitted to wear Black Lives Matter T-shirts and pins. The company also printed 250,000 Starbucks-branded Black Lives Matter shirts and is providing them to any employee who wants one — similar to how the company celebrates Pride month with branded LGBTQ attire.
“Starbucks stands in solidarity with our Black partners, community, and customers, and understands the desire to express themselves,” the company said in a statement.
Anthony Miyazaki, a marketing professor at Florida International University, said retailers are caught in the middle of a polarized country, weighing whether supporting the movement could hurt their bottom line. But it may be impossible for a nationwide brand to make everyone happy — customers might feel a deep connection to the Black Lives Matter message in one region, and oppose it in another.
“In the end, it may be that top management will feel compelled to make decisions based on their own value systems rather than solely on their financial outcomes,” he said. On the issue of face masks, Publix has lagged behind other grocers in instituting safeguards to deal with the coronavirus, a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed. Employees were forbidden from wearing face masks until early April and only required to wear masks starting April 20.
Desamours, who recently graduated high school and is planning to play college basketball at ASA College in Miami next year, said he was fortunate he could quit his summer job over principle because he still lives with his parents.
He said standing up for the Black Lives Matter message at work was empowering.
“I personally believe that, in order for there to be change in this world, everyone needs to be on board,” he said.
After he left Publix, he received many supportive texts and calls from colleagues, he said. And his parents were also proud of him — after they got through being angry and concerned for his safety.
“If people see the message out in public more often, they can become more aware,” he said.