Whole Foods Suggests That Workers Share Paid Time Off During Coronavirus

Whole Foods could afford to offer employees unlimited paid sick time during the Coronavirus outbreak. Instead, they have suggested that employees donate their accumulated paid time off to their coworkers.
March 13, 2020, 6:41pm
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On Wednesday, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey sent out an email to grocery store employees with a list of benefits and options for those who fall sick during the coronavirus pandemic.

Among his six suggestions was an option for employees to “donate” their paid time off (PTO) to coworkers facing medical emergencies.

“Team Members who have a medical emergency or death in their immediate family can receive donated PTO hours,” Mackey wrote in an email reviewed by Motherboard, “not only from Team Members in their own location, but also from Team Members across the country.”

In that same email, Whole Foods also said that it will offer unlimited, unpaid time off during the month of March and two weeks of paid time off for workers who test positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus—a policy announced this week for all Amazon employees and contractors that has also been adopted by tech companies like Uber, Lyft, and Instacart.

As a subsidiary of Amazon, the world’s biggest company, Whole Foods could easily afford to pay its hourly employees for sick days taken during the coronavirus outbreak without breaking the bank. Instead, the company has put the onus back on workers, and they're not happy about it.

“Considering [Whole Foods] is a billion dollar company, I think it is selfish asking the retail workers to figure it out within themselves,” a Whole Foods cashier wrote to Motherboard in an email. The cashier spoke to Motherboard under the condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation from Whole Foods. “The response from [Whole Foods and Amazon] has been quite poor, being a front end cashier I feel like we are the most exposed to the situation...Some of us have sick family members [whose] immune system is weak and [it] could be quite dangerous if they catch this virus.”

While these policies are a step-up from nothing, working people who fall ill and do not have access to coronavirus tests (there is a severe shortage of tests) or contract other illnesses, will still be forced to choose between taking unpaid time off, receiving donations from coworkers, or working while sick.

The option for Whole Foods workers to donate paid time off to coworkers has been a long-standing one during times of emergency which predates Amazon’s 2017 purchase of the health food giant. But some Whole Foods workers feel that this policy is outdated and inappropriate for a subsidiary of Amazon.

“This is an old Whole Foods policy of helping each other out. Amazon could afford to just pay us all for [sick time],” a Whole Foods employee in Chicago who orders and replenishes products, and who wished to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation, told Motherboard on the phone. “I have small children going through illnesses not related to Corona, and [what Whole Foods has offered] is a big cushion. But Amazon is rich, and they can be doing a lot more.”

“The policy of being able to donate to coworkers before has been around for a while,” Matthew Hunt, a former Whole Foods employee who led a drive to unionize Whole Foods workers, told Motherboard. “You’ve got the richest man in the world asking people who are living paycheck to paycheck to donate to each other. That’s absolute bullshit. With the amount Jeff Bezos makes in one day, he could shut stores down and pay employees to stay safe.”

Whole Foods did not respond to a request for comment. After this article was published, an Amazon spokesperson reached out with the following statement: “This is a longstanding Whole Foods Market program from prior to the acquisition. Amazon is matching all funds to the Whole Foods Fund since the acquisition to support the team needs during this unprecedented event, and all Whole Foods team members have access to the 2-weeks paid time off related to coronavirus that was announced for all Amazon employees.”

Update: This article has been updated with comment from Amazon.