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Some employees of the Boston online furniture giant Wayfair walked out of their Copley Square headquarters Wednesday after executives refused to back out of a sale with a government contractor furnishing a federal detention center for child migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border.
A letter signed by more than 500 employees, and released on social media Tuesday, expressed concern that Wayfair has an order for $200,000 worth of bedroom furniture from the nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services — an order that would be sent to a facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas.
"We believe that the current actions of the United States and their contractors at the southern border do not represent an ethical business partnership Wayfair should choose to be a part of," the letter said.
Just before 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, about 50 people began walking from the Wayfair office, holding signs reading "#wayfairwalkout" and "A prison with a bed is still a prison."
As they crossed over Dartmouth Street, a man shouted at them, "I would fire you all."
The employees continued to Copley Square, where they were joined by a few hundred people, most of whom were cheering and applauding the workers.
"This is the first time I felt like I needed to hit the streets to make sure I was proud of my company, to make sure I was happy to work for them," Wayfair employee Madeline Howard, 29, said to a crowd gathered by the steps of Trinity Church.
"Everyone deserves a home that they love," she said to cheers.
Howard was joined at the front by her fellow employee Elizabeth Good.
"Like Maddie, I am proud to work at Wayfair," Good said, "and I am proud to continue the dialogue that will lead to us ending the support of concentration camps at our southern border."
Advocates and lawyers have reported unsafe and unsanitary conditions in some migrant shelters, though U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it is leveraging limited resources to "provide the best care possible."
Wayfair's leadership team — in an unsigned response to the employee letter, which was obtained by the Boston Globe — wrote that they were "proud to have such an engaged team that is focused on impacting our world in meaningful and important ways," but that it is company practice to "sell to any customer who is acting within the laws of the countries within which we operate."
"As business leaders, we also believe in the importance of respecting diversity of thought within our organization and across our customer base," the letter said. "No matter how strongly any one of us feels about an issue, it is important to keep in mind that not all employees or customers agree."
Wayfair declined to comment Wednesday afternoon.
A spokeswoman for BCFS said in an email: "We believe youth should sleep in beds with mattresses."
Ann McHugh, 30, and Kathleen Onufer, 33, work near Copley Square and said they came to the rally to support the Wayfair employees who walked out.
"I think it's a non-question to participate," said McHugh.
"We were honestly sort of relieved to have an opportunity to express our feelings and to engage civically with that, beyond donating money to so many of the organizations that are working directly on this issue," said Onufer.
Both women said they haven't shopped at Wayfair before, and were not likely to in the future — even if the company donated profits from the sale to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services — an employee request.
Wayfair employees also want the company to review its code of ethics regarding business-to-business sales.
The employees were cheered in their action by Democratic political figures including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley.
Candice Woodson, of Dorchester, who drives for Lyft, also joined the rally to support the employees. She said she has shopped at Wayfair in the past, but she's not sure she will anymore.
"We'll see what happens, what their response to this is," she said. "I'm going to give them the opportunity to do the right thing ... to donate the money to the organizations that are actually going to help these children."
One of the few dissenters at the rally was Rob Burke, of Milton, who said he believes the protesting workers should instead seek a change to federal law. But he said he supported their right to protest.
"It's good, it's America," he said.
With reporting by WBUR's Simón Rios and NPR
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