Whole Foods employees are planning to strike on Tuesday to protest the lack of protections offered to workers during the coronavirus pandemic—the first national collective action led by workers at the company since it was founded in 1980.
On March 31, Whole Foods employees will call in sick to demand paid leave for all workers who stay home or self-quarantine during the crisis, free coronavirus testing for all employees, and hazard pay of double the current hourly wage for employees who show up to work during the pandemic.
“COVID-19 is a very real threat to the safety of our workforce and customers,” Whole Worker, the national worker group that is organizing the “sick out” wrote in a statement. “We cannot wait for politicians, institutions, or our own management to step in to protect us.”
The sick-out follows reports that Whole Foods workers at numerous stores across the country, including locations in New York City, Chicago, Louisiana, and California have tested positive for Covid-19. In each of these locations, the stores have remained open, leading some employees to charge that Whole Foods has failed to prioritize their safety during a period of record sales for the company.
“As we address unprecedented demand and fulfill a critical need in our communities, Whole Foods Market is committed to prioritizing our Team Members’ wellbeing, while recognizing their extraordinary dedication," a spokesperson for Whole Foods told Motherboard. "We have taken extensive measures to keep people safe, and in addition to social distancing, enhanced deep cleaning and crowd control measures, we continue rolling out new safety protocols in our stores to protect our Team Members who are on the front lines serving our customers."
In recent weeks, Whole Foods—a subsidiary of Amazon— has increased hourly pay for its workers by $2 an hour, offered to provide two weeks of paid sick leave to workers who test positive for Covid-19, and said it would not penalize workers for calling out sick.
“The most obvious demand we have is for an increase in hazard pay. We’re asking for double pay,” a Whole Foods worker in Chicago and organizer of the “sick-out” who wished to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation, told Motherboard. “Since we first announced the intent to do a sick out, Whole Foods announced a temporary raise of $2 an hour, which isn’t enough. A bunch of us have already gotten sick. It’s very plausible that some of us will die for this job.”
Many employees say the protections and policies Whole Foods has offered fail to protect workers as many workers do not have enough savings to stay home from work even if they’re sick and coronavirus tests remain in short supply.
“You can’t tell someone not to go to work if they’re sick, if they have to pay their rent in two days,” the Whole Foods worker in Chicago continued. “Our Whole Foods staff is on a skeleton crew right now. It’s the people who want to be working or the people who have no choice that are showing up. The portion of our workforce with any money in the bank is absent. Given the instability in our workforce, it gives me doubts that safety measures are carried out.”
That worker says multiple employees at his Chicago store plan to call out sick tomorrow.
One Whole Foods worker in New England who wished to remain anonymous told Motherboard that her doctor asked her to quarantine for two weeks after she experienced coronavirus symptoms, but Whole Foods has refused to accept her doctor’s note or provide her with sick leave because her symptoms were not severe enough for her to get tested and she did not travel to an area with a coronavirus outbreak.
“My doctor asked me to quarantine for two weeks and I haven’t been able to get paid time off,” the worker said. “Whole Foods said we wouldn’t get it unless we got a positive test. There are a lot of people in my situation who aren’t receiving time off. It’s hard to imagine that those who couldn’t afford to do so would stay home. Whole Foods says if you’re feeling better, you should come to work.”
The Whole Foods “sick out” is the latest in a wave of strikes led by workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic who are demanding increased pay, sick leave, and safety precautions from their employers. On Monday, Amazon warehouse workers in New York City and Instacart shoppers across the country walked off the job. Last week, sanitation workers in Pittsburgh and poultry plant workers in Georgia staged their own unauthorized strikes.
In recent days, workers have told Motherboard they received voicemails from Whole Foods informing them that their coworkers had fallen sick, days after the store learned about positive cases—leading workers to express concerns that Whole Foods isn’t acting quickly enough to protect employees who might have been exposed.
On March 25, 15 state attorney generals sent a letter to Jeff Bezos and John Mackey, the CEOs of Amazon and Whole Foods, demanding that the grocery store chain expand its paid sick leave policies to cover those experiencing Covid-19 symptoms but unable to get tested and those caring for individuals diagnosed with Covid-19. "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.
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“It’s been tough in the stores,” a Whole Foods employee in Texas who plans to call in sick on Tuesday told Motherboard. “I personally try not to hold anything against anyone who works in a store. For me, none of the enemies work in a store at all. It’s at the global corporate level. They’re trying to do everything they can to avoid giving us hazard pay.”
Update: This article was updated to include a comment from Whole Foods.