Whole Foods has fired a California employee who created a running count of COVID-19 cases in company’s US supermarkets because neither Amazon nor Whole Foods would make the information publicly available.
Katie Doan, who worked at the Tustin Whole Foods in Orange County for three years, says she was fired on Wednesday for “time theft” when she took a 45 minute break to recover from a panic attack. For many Whole Foods employees and other grocery store workers around the country, working at the company has been stressful and anxiety-inducing, in part because of the ever-present risk of catching COVID-19. Motherboard viewed a copy of the terms of her separation from the company.
“Truth be told, I knew that I’d eventually be terminated for dissent. I knew I’d be fired because I’ve seen how Amazon treats its workers who are involved in organizing,” Doan told Motherboard. “I just didn’t imagine it would come so swiftly, and over a panic attack that I had. I think Whole Foods really needs to figure out what their priorities are and allow workers to raise concerns.”
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon (which owns Whole Foods) has fired at least five employees involved in organizing their coworkers.
“Any suggestion that the separation of this Team Member is related to any form of retaliation is completely false," a Whole Foods spokesperson told Motherboard. "The Team Member admitted to violating well-established policies, leaving work for long periods of time without clocking out and leaving Team Members and her department without support. We followed standard company practices when investigating the Team Member's infractions and throughout the separation process, including an interview and post-interview separation form filled out and signed by the Team Member."
In early April, Doan decided to create the Google doc tracking coronavirus cases—drawing from news articles, Twitter, Reddit, and other worker groups, and citing each case meticulously, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. In Indianapolis, an Amazon employee Jana Jumpp has been independently tracking cases in Amazon warehouses, and on Reddit, Amazon employees have also been tracking cases.
“I created that list because people deserve to know if they’re walking into an outbreak,” said Doan. “I wholeheartedly believe that people who go shopping at Whole Foods once a week deserve to know that’s going on inside the stores. It would obviously hurt Whole Foods business but let the public decide if they want to go there or not. Being upfront shows the responsibility in going forward.”
As of Wednesday, more than 340 Whole Foods workers had tested positive and four employees had died, according to Doan’s crowdsourced list.
Doan says she has suffered from panic attacks for years, and she and her managers have had a mutual understanding that she could step away from her work on occasion when she needed to.
But last Saturday, the company decided to take disciplinary action that resulted in her termination. Doan, a journalism student at CSU Fullerton, says she had only received a single write up in her three years at the store, and suspects that her termination is an act of retaliation for her involvement in organizing with the group, Whole Worker, which published the list of Covid-19 cases in Whole Foods stores.
Like its parent company Amazon, Whole Foods, has a track record of suppressing worker organizing and union activity. In April, Business Insider published a report that Whole Foods uses a “heat map” to gauge stores that are at risk of unionization, weighing factors including local union membership, number of NLRB complaints, and local poverty and unemployment rates.
Earlier this month, Tim Bray, a former Vice President at Amazon, resigned in protest because Amazon fired workers who protested over working conditions during the pandemic. In his public resignation letter, Bray wrote that the company has been "firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of COVID-19." Bray called the company "chickenshit" and said the firings were "designed to create a climate of fear."
Whole Foods did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Doan’s termination.