Refugee from South Sudan sues Whole Foods for racial discrimination

·3 min read

May 11—A Black man who came to Maine from South Sudan as a refugee when he was 16 on Tuesday sued Whole Foods Market alleging the company discriminated against him when it refused to interview him for a supervisory position at the Portland store.

Mark Opio, 36, of Portland worked for Whole Foods for more than eight years, including over seven years in the meat department, the complaint said. While at Whole Foods, almost all the supervisors at the Portland store were white, Opio claims.

A spokesperson for the company declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit as it is pending litigation.

In 2019, he applied for a promotion to associate team leader in the meat department and was scheduled for an interview, according to the complaint. Two days before the scheduled job interview, it was canceled suddenly. When Opio asked why, he was told: "You don't know how to read," which is not true, the complaint said. Opio also allegedly was told that he had not done enough to "prove" himself to the meat department team and get them to "accept you as one of them."

Whole Foods allegedly hired a white applicant with under two years of experience at Whole Foods and no relevant educational background. Opio has a Bachelor's degree in business.

In November 2020, the Maine Human Right Commission found that Whole Foods had engaged in unlawful race discrimination.

Opio, who became a citizen in 2007, said that working at Whole Food was not just a job but a career.

"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," he said. "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."

Opio gave his two-week notice to the company on Sept. 26, 2019, according to the complaint.

While Opio did work for the company for a total of eight years, that time was not continuous. He quit in 2015 and rejoined Whole Foods in 2019, the company said Tuesday. He was promoted during his employment at Whole Foods. Opio was working the produce department when he applied for a supervisory position in the meat department.

"He left Whole Foods to seek employment where he would have a fair chance to move up in the company and earn recognition for his hard work and education," the complaint said. "Mr. Opio would not have left Whole Foods if he had received the promotion."

To make up for his salary at Whole Foods, Opio is now working two jobs, according to his attorney, Carol Garvan of Augusta.

Opio is seeking back pay and benefits along with compensatory and punitive damages with an admission from the company that it discriminated against him.