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Business and Economy

South Sudanese Immigrant Sues Portland Whole Foods, Alleging Race Discrimination

Many of the small companies that give Whole Foods its local-food image may look at Jeff Bezos' Amazon, which changed the way people shop, and see a hint of their own desire to shake things up in the food industry.
Many of the small companies that give Whole Foods its local-food image may look at Jeff Bezos' Amazon, which changed the way people shop, and see a hint of their own desire to shake things up in the food industry.

A South Sudanese immigrant is suing Whole Foods alleging race discrimination and unlawful retaliation.

According to the complaint filed in Cumberland Superior Court, Mark Opio, who is Black, worked for Whole Foods in Portland for more than eight years altogether, from 2007 until 2015, and then again from Dec. 2018 through Oct. 2019, which a Whole Foods Market spokesperson confirms. Opio says he was scheduled to interview for a promotion to associate team leader in the meat department in Feb. 2019, which was abruptly canceled.

The complaint says the Team Leader who was supposed to interview Opio for the position told Opio that he didn't do enough to "prove himself" or get the team to "accept you as one of them."

Mark Opio Whole Foods.jpg
Johnson, Webbert & Garvan, LLP
Mark Opio

“For me, working at Whole Foods Market was not just a job, it was a career,” Opio said in a press release from his law firm, Johnson, Webbert & Garvan, LLP. “I felt like I had achieved the American Dream, and I believed that, in America, anyone had a chance to succeed if they were willing to work hard and be judged on the quality of their work. But when Whole Foods denied me the chance to even interview for a leadership position, it made me question all that. It makes me wonder if I will always be treated like a second-class citizen in America.”

The complaint says that Whole Foods instead hired a white applicant with under two years of experience at Whole Foods for the position. According to a Whole Foods Market spokesperson, they make promotion decisions based on merit and they have zero tolerance for discrimination or retaliation of any kind.

According to data from the complaint, not one of the 66 supervisory employees at the Portland store from Dec. 2017 to Dec. 2019 were Black. During that same period, the population in Portland, Maine was 8.4% Black, according to U.S. Census data.

Opio resigned from Whole Foods in Sept. 2019.

Opio emigrated to Maine from South Sudan as a refugee in 2001, when he was 16 years old. At the age of 6, Opio fled South Sudan due to violence and was taken under United Nations protection at a refugee camp in Uganda.

A Whole Foods Market spokesperson responded to a request for comment by email and said that the company does not have an official statement, as the case is pending litigation.