By Emily Resnevic and Peter Shanley
Ryan Costello, a former Jamaica Plain Whole Foods employee, is suing the company for retaliation and breach of contract after the company fired him in October, according to a lawsuit document filed in Suffolk Superior Court.
Heather McCready, a spokesperson for Whole Foods, said that the company does not comment on pending litigation.
Costello was employed as a team member in the prepared foods section at the Whole Foods located at 413 Centre Street. The defendants of the case are Whole Foods Market Group and Wanda Hernandez, who is the general manager at the Jamaica Plain Whole Foods. Hernandez is responsible for setting employees’ pay rates, and had involvements in and responsibility for the decision to terminate Costello’s employment, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit states that Costello’s activities were protected under the Massachusetts Minimum Fair Wage Law and the Massachusetts Wage Act when he and other co-workers at Whole Foods approached management to request a wage increase due to an increase of job responsibilities. In September 2015, Whole Foods installed a new burrito bar, and soon afterwards new hot food and pizza stations. Costello and his co-workers took on these new responsibilities with no pay increase for the extra work.
Costello drafted a petition seeking for him and his co-workers to receive a one-dollar hourly raise to compensate for the extra responsibilities, which many employees signed, and he presented it to management. He was later summoned into a meeting with Wanda Hernandez and Linda Shear, a regional executive coordinator. They informed Costello that was under investigation for statements that he supposedly said while soliciting signatures for the petition and for soliciting signatures while on the clock.
A week or so later, Costello was fired for “lying during an investigation,” according to the lawsuit.
Costello is seeking lost wages, emotional distress damages, treble damages, interest, costs and attorney’s fees, and reinstatement to his position, according to the lawsuit.
The emotional distress damages are related to Whole Foods’ breach of contract and good faith, according to the lawsuit. In the General Information Guide for employees, the company states that it takes pride in creating a positive working environment and encourages employees to communicate openly with one another and with management about working conditions, according to the lawsuit.
“My firing is just a continuation of Whole Food’s anti-worker policy that had us working in such terrible conditions in the first place,” said Costello in an email to the Gazette. He expressed concerns that Whole Foods “ignored individual concerns about working conditions and to such a degree that [he and his co-workers] had to take collective action.”
Costello also expressed feelings that his firing and further investigations were a symptom of a greater problem in the community: gentrification.
“In Jamaica Plain we can see, on almost a daily basis, the negative effects of displacement on the community. How can Whole Foods claim to be a community grocery store when they don’t pay their workers even close to enough to afford living in the community which the company claims to serve?” he asked.
As of print date, there is no trial date set. Costello is being defended by Hillary Schwab and Rachel J. Smit.