But when the Black 19-year-old returned to work the following Monday, a White customer threatened to call the hamburger chain’s corporate office over the mask, she said, prompting a chain of events that led Congious to lose her job and her managers to call the police on their own employee.
As Whataburger insists it did nothing wrong and was in fact accepting Congious’ resignation, the former cashier filed a discrimination complaint Wednesday with Texas state officials. She alleges she was let go specifically because of her race and the message on her mask.
“It’s not a political thing,” Congious said at a news conference Wednesday. “It’s just a statement that says ‘Black Lives Matter’ because we do matter.”
Following a summer of nationwide protests against racial injustice, her incident is the latest in a long string of episodes in which employers have disciplined workers over masks expressing support for the movement.
In San Antonio last week, a charter school fired an art teacher who refused to stop wearing Black Lives Matter masks to her classroom. A Milwaukee pizza store owner terminated and then physically scuffled with a delivery driver who insisted on keeping the message on his face coverings.
And in late July, 14 workers at Whole Foods locations across four states filed a class-action lawsuit against the supermarket chain, charging that the company retaliated against them for wearing BLM masks and pins. (Whole Foods is a unit of Amazon, whose founder Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
At the core of all these incidents are a nearly identical set of allegations: From a PetSmart in Illinois to a juice bar in Virginia, workers say their employers — many of whom now require masks due to the coronavirus pandemic — specifically targeted them for their Black Lives Matter apparel while turning a blind eye to gear supporting other causes, from sports teams to LGBTQ rights.
The managers and owners being challenged, meanwhile, say they are trying to enforce consistent policies and keep politics out of their schools and stores.
“If we allow any non-Whataburger slogans as part of our uniforms, we have to allow all slogans,” the company said in a statement to KDFW on Wednesday. “This could create tension and conflict among our employees and our customers. It is our job as a responsible brand to proactively keep our employees and customers safe."
On July 31, when Congious first showed up to work wearing the BLM mask, managers at her store located in a historically Black part of town did not raise any concerns, she said in her complaint to the Texas Workforce Commission.
It was not until the following Monday, when a White customer complained and made the threat to contact the chain’s headquarters, that Congious’s managers sat her and other co-workers down and said they had to wear masks with “no opinions whatsoever on them.”
“You’re entitled to your personal opinions, that’s fine. But at Whataburger we don’t want to portray them because some people may be offended,” one supervisor said, according to a recording captured by Congious. The company “doesn’t want to get into anything political because we’re just hamburgers and fries.”
Whataburger had provided employees with company-branded masks, the manager added, though Congious’s complaint noted that other workers at her location had worn face coverings displaying the Gucci logo or the Mexican flag.
In the midst of an increasingly heated conversation, she asked the supervisors how to request her two weeks’ notice.
“You want to put your two weeks’ notice in?” a manager responded, according to the recording shared with The Washington Post. “We accept it, and you don’t have to come back at all.”
Congious had not yet decided to quit, she later clarified in her complaint, and merely wanted to ask about her options. But when she pushed back to her supervisors and remained inside the store, they called the police on her, she said. Five cars responded to the scene, and Congious left and did not return to work.
The company said in a statement that Congious had “voluntarily resigned due to a disagreement over our company uniform policy” and was paid for the two weeks she was scheduled to work.
But Jason C.N. Smith, her attorney, told The Post that the incident amounted to an act of race-based discrimination against Congious, who had been working at the burger chain for $9.25 an hour since May.
“There’s such a strong aversion or reaction to African Americans saying that they matter, and it’s that reaction that is causing the problems in our society,” he said. “Not the after-the-fact reasons given for uniformity.”
Congious has to file a complaint with the state’s workforce commission 180 days before filing a lawsuit against Whataburger, he said. But in the meantime, she has wasted no time challenging the regionally beloved Texas chain.
At the news conference on Wednesday, she called on Whataburger to provide additional implicit bias training and institute a companywide holiday to celebrate Juneteenth next year, and urged its CEO, Ed Nelson, to publicly state that “Black Lives Matter to Whataburger."
Such a declaration, Smith said, isn’t just a matter of responding to the incident. It’s also good business.
Caught in the middle of an increasingly polarized discussion on politics and race, Smith argued, employers must affirm Black employees and customers who want their humanity recognized rather than bending over backward to accommodate White customers.
If not, he said, Congious’s incident “sends a message that Whataburger really doesn’t care about the Black people who work for them or buy their hamburgers.”