“We wanted to take the opportunity to share some information with you. We’ve just been informed that two team members have been diagnosed with Covid-19,” a recorded voice on the other end of the line says.
This is the voicemail message Whole Food employees have been receiving from the grocery store giant when coworkers at their stores test positive with the coronavirus. When they answer the call, workers are implored to "press 1 to confirm receipt."
On Wednesday, workers at the Arabella Station location in New Orleans received this voicemail. Employees at the Huntington Beach location in California also reported receiving an automated call from their location about a coworker who tested positive.
"We are working to identify any team members who had prolonged contact with the diagnosed team members and will communicate with them individually," the voicemail says.
The voicemail lists the last shifts the team members worked at that specific store (which was within the last week; Motherboard has edited out the specific dates to protect worker privacy), and then says "rest assured that we have detailed measures in place to address this issue.”
Whole Foods confirmed to Motherboard that the New Orleans location remained open after management became aware of the cases, as Louisiana experiences the fastest growth of cases in the world. Several locations in New York City and California have also reported cases of employees with coronavirus.
So far, the Amazon subsidiary has left all of these stores open and refused to provide unlimited paid sick leave to its employees, even as many locations earn record sales with customers rushing to stock up on food. The refusal to shut down stores or provide unlimited paid sick leave could lead to larger outbreaks of coronavirus at grocery stores, as the virus is primarily spread through human-to-human contact, at times when infected people show no symptoms at all.
On Wednesday, attorney generals from 14 states sent a letter to the CEOs of Amazon and Whole Foods demanding that it expand its paid sick leave policies. "By limiting paid sick leave to only those employees who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or who have been placed into quarantine, the Companies are placing their other employees, their customers, and the public at large at significant risk of exposure to COVID-19," the attorneys general wrote.
Meanwhile, employees say that workers are having panic attacks on the job because of the volume of customers, increased workloads during the pandemic, and fears they have about their own personal safety. Many Whole Foods workers have told Motherboard that some of their colleagues, who live paycheck to paycheck, have no choice but to go to work sick and to work when they’ve been exposed to the virus, because Whole Foods has not offered paid sick leave unless employees test positive for Covid-19. Multiple workers have said that management has told them not to wear face masks on the job.
A worker at the New Orleans location who wished to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation said that workers are scared to go to work (many have taken unpaid time off), and “feel that our leadership is trying to keep things quiet from us in the store.” The worker said that their manager informed them of the case on Monday, but Whole Foods did not send the voicemail until Wednesday. On Tuesday, Whole Foods told Motherboard that it was unaware of the case at the Whole Foods, but confirmed two cases today.