The scene at Whole Foods Markets from Silicon Valley to Texas to Chicago has been one of utter chaos in recent days, employees say. Beginning in the wee hours of the morning, customers have queued up outside stores; most people are spending hundreds of dollars. By midday, at many stores, essentials and staples like toilet paper, bread, and pasta have been depleted.
Whole Foods employees, still working in many cities that have otherwise shut down, say if they are sick and have run out of paid time off, they have no choice but to go to work. Others are calling out because they are worried about contracting the virus.
“I’ve worked the last six days in a row. Today is the first day I’ve called off because I was scared to go there,” a barista at a Whole Foods in Chicago who wished to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation told Motherboard on Monday. “There are record sales. People are saying they’re never seen anything like this. It can only be described as post-apocalyptic. Our shelves are empty. Literally everything is gone except for cheese. Workers are crying and having panic attacks.”
The mayhem at Whole Foods coincides with an announcement on Monday to increase hourly workers' wages by $2 an hour through the end of April, and the closure of hot, salad, soup, and olive bars. Whole Foods has also pledged to provide its hourly employees with unlimited unpaid sick days through the end of March and to pay workers for two weeks of sick leave if they test positive for Covid-19.
“As a grocer, we believe our role serving customers and the community during this time is a critical one," a spokesperson for Whole Foods told Motherboard. "The health and wellbeing of our Team Members remains a top priority and we’ve implemented numerous measures to support them during this time of uncertainty, including stringent sanitation measures to ensure a safe work environment, unlimited call-outs, and access to 2-weeks paid time off that was announced for all Amazon employees.”
But workers, who are on the frontlines of a pandemic, say that this does not go far enough. Their company is a subsidiary of one of the world’s largest companies, which is owned by the world’s richest person who are at the frontlines of a pandemic. (Last week, Whole Foods sent an email to employees suggesting they could donate accumulated paid time off to their sick coworkers.)
“Workers stay when they’re sick instead of going home, because nothing has been offered to [sick workers]. They have no other option,” a worker at the Whole Foods in West Hollywood, Los Angeles told Motherboard. “People should not have to work sick.”
Workers say that Whole Foods has provided gloves and hand sanitizer to workers but has told them not to wear face masks. Two different Whole Foods workers reached out to Motherboard to say they were chastised by their managers for wearing masks at work. Other workers say the stress of the situation has brought teams together, with workers supporting each other during this difficult situation.
“Our workload has greatly increased,” a produce buyer at a Whole Foods Market in Texas told Motherboard. “As grocery store workers, we’re some of the only ones who have to go out and work in a dangerous environment while everyone is told not to work or work from home. … They keep telling us how appreciated we are. We want to be shown how appreciated we are. We want to double time hazard pay. We should get paid time off whether we get sick or not to avoid getting paid or not.”
The produce buyer told Motherboard that since last Wednesday, his store has run out of staples like broccoli, onions, and potatoes by midday. Normally, he orders produce every day for the following day, but this practice was suspended last week and his warehouse has begun sending whatever they have in stock.
“Our bosses are describing this as an extreme measure," they said. “Our sales have more than doubled, and warehouses couldn’t handle it.”
On Sunday, a technical glitch set off by the influx of orders froze Whole Foods and Amazon’s grocery delivery services, resulting in many Amazon gig workers saying they weren’t able to fill orders or receive pay.
“I couldn’t work all day on Sunday, and I made a whopping $25 because the app wasn’t working,” an Amazon Flex gig worker in San Jose, California who delivers groceries from the Blossom Hill Whole Foods, told Motherboard. “I’ve been constantly emailing support asking for overtime and making sure I’m documenting everything to make sure they don’t terminate me.”
Workers in some stores say that Whole Foods has been understaffed since Amazon purchased the grocery store in 2018 for $13.4 billion and enacted widespread layoffs. On January 1, Whole Foods cut healthcare benefits for some 1,900 part-time employees, raising the bar to qualify for benefits from 20 to 30 hours. Some part-time employees are being asked to work extra hours during the pandemic, workers say.
“The workers need not to take the hit,” said the produce buyer in Texas. “The billionaire owner needs to take the hit. Think about all the extra profit from this week. Whole Foods is doing great and they’re making lots of profit. Why is no one bringing that up?…Let’s get mad at our boss’s boss’s boss, not our coworkers because they’re sick."