There are bad days at work, there are really bad days at work, and then there’s the kind of day that Richard Highsmith had. The Hackensack, New Jersey man worked in the produce department at a Whole Foods in nearby Paramus, which seems like it would be a low-key kind of gig, assuming that you have a high tolerance for countless questions about organic avocados.
But in August 2017, Highsmith says that he was bitten by a black widow spider when he reached into the produce cooler, an incident that left him with lingering physical and emotional pain. According to NJ.com, the venomous spider caused temporary paralysis in one arm, and kept him out of work for a month. He also had to endure a number of hospitalizations and hand therapy sessions related to the lingering effects of the bite.
Highsmith returned to work a month later but was (understandably) shaken at the prospect of having to reach into the produce cooler again, and started having spider-related panic attacks. He asked his supervisor if he could swap shifts, but freaked out and called in sick. He then asked to be transferred to another department but, according to Highsmith, he never heard back.
He was fired on September 22, which Whole Foods says was due to “job abandonment.” Highsmith disagrees, and he’s filed a lawsuit alleging that the store terminated him because of a disability—which, in his case, is the panic and anxiety he felt after the spider bite. His lawsuit alleges that Whole Foods violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination by failing to move him to a different department.
In the lawsuit, Highsmith is asking for lost wages, damages, and attorney fees. (His hospitalization and medical bills were covered by workers’ compensation.) Whole Foods has not responded to his complaint, although last week, they did succeed in having the case moved from Bergen County Superior Court to federal court.
The black widow is the most venomous spider in North America and, although its bite can be painful, it is rarely fatal. “The effects of a bite by a member of this genus depend on the species, but effects can include nausea, profuse sweating, severe pain in abdomen and back, muscle aches, hypertension and paralysis of the diaphragm, which can cause difficulty in breathing,” arachnologist Jo-Anne Nina Siwlal told LiveScience (and all of which sounds pretty terrible).
Although Highsmith did not specify what kind of produce he was reaching for when he was bitten, black widows do have an annoying habit of hiding in bunches of grapes. In July, an Exeter, New Hampshire woman discovered a black widow in the organic grapes she’d purchased at the local Market Basket. Last summer, when a different shopper found her own black-widow-n-grapes combo, a Nebraska supermarket spokesperson said that between 700 to 800 Americans, on average, find a black widow in a bunch of grapes every year.
“Because they like those dark, tight spots, grapes could provide a good landscape for black widows to nest,” Dr. Eleanor Spicer Rice, a doctor of entomology and author of Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Spiders, told VICE. “Because grapes, particularly organic grapes, attract hungry insects, they'd be a great spot for spiders to nest and feed on our pests. It's also possible that they crawl into the grapes in transport or once the grapes reach the grocery store. Though they're not often seen, black widow spiders aren't all that uncommon in their native range. Many of us are often closer to black widow spiders than we think.”
Dr. Spicer Rice also explained that “it’s hard” to get a black widow to bite you. “They are not aggressive, and research shows that they bite only when they sense their lives are in immediate danger,” she said. “For example, squeezing a black widow could cause her to bite you. Therefore, if someone is handling the grapes and accidentally grabs the spider, she may bite him. This is to say, if you find a widow spider, don't panic, but also don't try to handle her directly.”
VICE has reached out to Whole Foods for comment. In the meantime, let’s all show some respect to produce workers everywhere—who knew it could be such a dangerous gig?