A Latino former employee of a Trader Joe’s store in Rancho Palos Verdes, where a customer’s 2020 dispute with the staff over her refusal to wear a mask was widely seen on YouTube.com, is suing the grocery chain on allegations of racial discrimination and whistleblower retaliation.
Adan Deloza maintains in his Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit filed Wednesday that he was fired for complaining about the allegedly lax attitude store manager Cynthia Evink had toward the coronavirus, saying he and his colleagues were criticized for asking the irate maskless customer to leave.
A Trader Joe’s representative could not be immediately reached for comment on the suit, which seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Deloza was hired as a crew member in December 2019 and soon was performing many duties of a manager, including putting up store displays, making purchase orders and creating various recipes for the kitchen, according to his court papers.
The customer who objected to wearing a mask entered the Hawthorne Boulevard store last May and recorded her interactions with several employees, saying the coronavirus had a 99% survival rate. The video was later uploaded on YouTube.com.
“You’re all wearing masks like sheep,” she said. “This cannot be the new normal and it’s disgusting.”
She said she did not want to wear a mask because she would be breathing her own carbon dioxide, an opinion she falsely maintained was held by many infectious disease experts.
Later, the woman told a customer in the parking lot, “This is America, dude, you look like an idiot with that mask on. Why are you allowing the government to control you?”
According to Deloza’s lawsuit, Evink did not back up the staff in the aftermath of their interactions with the angry patron.
“Immediately following this video, all of the employees at Trader Joe’s, including Mr. Deloza, were reprimanded by Cynthia for making the maskless customer leave rather than simply letting her shop without a mask against the state and federal mandates,” the suit alleges.
The plaintiff alleges the Rancho Palos Verdes location repeatedly allowed customers to shop without a mask, failed to limit the number of customers inside the store to allow for social distancing and did not allow workers to conduct additional front-of-store sanitation, “all to the severe detriment of their employees’ and customers’ health and safety.”
Evink initially refused to allow Deloza and the other employees to wear masks or gloves, saying doing so would ruin the friendly environment of the store, the suit alleges.
Evink often spoke of her disbelief in the existence and severity of the COVID-19 virus and said that those waiting on the coronavirus vaccine were “morons” and “stupid,” according to the lawsuit.
Evink also alleges he was given menial tasks by Evink that were not delegated to white employees and that when he gave her suggestions about how to hire more minorities and encourage diversity, she replied, “Those kinds of people don’t apply here.”
Deloza was fired last June, according to the suit, which says that the “termination letter blatantly explains that Mr. Deloza was terminated due to his complaints regarding Trader Joe’s failure to follow COVID-19 requirements.”
The letter “demonstrates that Trader Joe’s was more concerned with imposing their own beliefs regarding the COVID-19 mandates than keeping their employees safe,” the suit alleges.
In January, Evink was “finally forced to begin enforcing COVID-19 requirements due to employee and community outcry,” according to the suit.