A masked store clerk stands behind the counter at the Cumberland Farms store on Pine Street in Portland on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

A former Portland convenience store clerk is suing his former employer, alleging that the Cumberland Farms chain fired him in June 2020 for not serving a customer who refused to wear a mask despite a statewide order for people to wear face coverings in public indoor places.

Tommy Stowe, 44, of Portland is seeking back pay and unspecified damages. He claims the company violated the Maine Human Rights Act and the Maine Whistleblower’s Protection Act in firing him.

His case is part of a growing number of labor lawsuits nationwide alleging coronavirus-related labor and employment violations. In Lincoln, an employee of Hannaford sued the grocery store chain last month alleging that she was demoted in 2020 after reporting to management that staff and customers weren’t following protocols to curb the spread of COVID-19.

In Stowe’s case, the Maine Human Rights Commission dismissed his complaint in August 2021 because he had failed to substantiate his discrimination claim, Cumberland Farms’ attorneys wrote in their answer to Stowe’s complaint.

Stowe originally filed the lawsuit in December in Cumberland County Superior Court. Attorneys for the convenience store operator moved it to federal court in Portland earlier this month. A jury trial has been set tentatively for September.

Cumberland Farms, headquartered in Westborough, Massachusetts, has denied discriminating against Stowe. The company claims in its answer to the complaint that he was fired “to serve legitimate, non-retaliatory, business purposes.”

Attorneys for the firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Stowe started working for the Pine Street convenience store in 2018, according to his attorney, Jeffrey Bennett of South Portland. The incident over which he allegedly was fired took place on May 29, 2020, a month after Gov. Janet Mills ordered people to wear masks inside retail stores to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Stowe was working a night shift when a customer who was not wearing a mask entered the store on Portland’s Pine Street at about 3 a.m. Stowe asked the customer to put on a mask but the person refused, according to the complaint. As a result, Stowe told the customer to leave the store and refused him service, but the customer became belligerent.

He was fired on June 5, 2020, the complaint said.

Stowe, who had previously told managers he was concerned about serving maskless customers, was told initially that he’d been fired for refusing to serve a customer without a mask. Stowe alleged in the complaint that the reason for his firing was changed, but that reason was not included in the complaint or Cumberland Farms’ answer to it.

Stowe’s attorney said that his client was “a willing front-line worker serving the public for the benefit of his employer, Cumberland Farms, at a time when the pandemic was in its beginning stage and known to be highly contagious and deadly.”

When the unmasked customer entered the store, Bennett said his client “denied the customer service in compliance with Gov. Mills’ statewide public safety mask mandate and was fired for doing so by Cumberland Farms.”

The lawyer also said that the company gave “multiple inconsistent reasons for firing Tommy” in an attempt to justify his firing.

Stowe now works at a car wash in Portland, according to Bennett.