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Home Depot ban on worker's Black Lives Matter apron was illegal, US agency rules

FILE PHOTO: A Home Depot store is seen in Los Angeles

By Daniel Wiessner

(Reuters) - Home Depot violated U.S. labor law by barring a retail worker from wearing an apron that said "BLM" in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, a federal labor board ruled on Wednesday.

The National Labor Relations Board in a 3-1 decision said the worker's refusal to remove the writing from the apron was protected by federal law because it came amid complaints about racial discrimination by employees at the New Brighton, Minnesota store.

The worker, Antonio Morales, who uses they/them pronouns, in 2021 was told not to return to work with the altered apron and quit in response.

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Morales and other workers at the store had previously raised concerns about racial harassment and discrimination, and wearing the BLM apron was a "logical outgrowth" of those complaints, the NLRB said.

The labor board found that Home Depot broke the law by forcing Morales to quit because they had advocated for better working conditions, which is considered protected conduct under U.S. labor law.

The board said Morales did not have to explicitly link the apron to a workplace protest because, in light of the complaints about discrimination, "the BLM symbol accumulated meaning relevant to working conditions there."

Home Depot was ordered to reinstate Morales and compensate them for lost pay and benefits. The company, which can appeal the decision to a federal appeals court, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Black Lives Matter movement rose to national prominence in 2020 as protests were held across the country triggered by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man murdered by a Minneapolis police officer.

Wednesday's ruling comes as the labor board is separately considering whether it was unlawful for Amazon.com's Whole Foods and two Kroger subsidiaries to bar workers from wearing Black Lives Matter masks, shirts and other apparel.

An administrative judge in December dismissed the case against Whole Foods, saying that donning Black Lives Matter garb had little connection to its workers' jobs.

A different judge last May ruled against the Kroger units, finding that the grocery chains' employees were supporting their Black coworkers by wearing Black Lives Matter masks and pins. The five-member board is reviewing both decisions.

In the Home Depot case, the board's only Republican member, Marvin Kaplan, said in a dissenting opinion on Wednesday that Morales' refusal to remove the marking from their apron was an "individual act" not covered by U.S. labor law.

"Black Lives Matter is not widely known for advocating for racial justice in the workplace," Kaplan wrote, and nothing on the apron was critical of Home Depot, so there was no connection to working conditions at the store.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Jonathan Oatis)