Whole Foods Workers Start Sickout. How Many Isn’t Clear (1)

March 31, 2020, 7:45 PM

Some workers at Whole Foods Market stores across the U.S. called in sick on Tuesday, part of a coordinated action to demand more sick pay and protections for grocery store employees working through the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s unclear how many people participated. An organizer said they didn’t have an estimate, and a Whole Foods spokeswoman didn’t provide a tally, but said the strike hadn’t disrupted operations.

Bloomberg News interviewed workers in five states, from Illinois and Texas to the Eastern Seaboard, who say they joined colleagues calling in sick. They cite as reasons for participating fear of contracting or spreading the coronavirus to family members and disputes with managers about appropriate measure to protect themselves, among other things.

The sickout strike is the latest in a string of efforts by employees of businesses that remain open during the pandemic to extract protections and better working conditions from their employers. Workers at Perdue Farms Inc., McDonald’s Corp., and General Electric Co. have protested. Walmart Inc. said this week it was experiencing higher than normal absenteeism among its workforce, but that it was “manageable.” On Monday, some employees at Amazon.com Inc.’s Staten Island, New York, warehouse walked off the job to protest the company’s handling of coronavirus cases in the facility.

Organizers of the Whole Foods action have circulated a petition signed by more than 10,500 people asking for paid leave for all workers who choose to isolate themselves, health care coverage for part-time employees and funds to cover testing and treatment of sick team members. Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, in January stopped providing health care benefits for part-time employees who work less than 30 hours a week.

The upscale grocer has rolled out temporary raises of $2 an hour through April, increased overtime compensation, and says employees placed in quarantine or diagnosed with Covid-19 are eligible for two weeks of paid sick leave, policies in place throughout Amazon’s workforce. Rachel Malish, a Whole Foods spokeswoman, on Tuesday pointed to those actions and others the company says it’s taking to safeguard employees. “So far today we have seen no changes to overall absenteeism and we continue to operate all of our stores without interruption,” she said in an emailed statement. “There is no higher priority for us than taking care of our Team Members.”

Malish said the critiques from “a small but vocal group” don’t accurately reflect the collective view of the grocer’s 95,000 employees.

One Whole Foods worker in the Chicago area who joined the strike on Tuesday said working at the grocer felt like a public service a few weeks ago, when aisles were full of shoppers panic buying. But as business slowed to a more normal level—and the virus spread to communities across the country—the employee no longer thinks coming to work is worth the risk.

“It’s really hard for people to stay safe,” the employee said. “Workers are being forced to choose between their safety and the safety of their loved ones and being able to pay their bills.”

The worker spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from her employer. Some Whole Foods workers said Amazon’s firing on Monday of Chris Smalls, an organizer of the Amazon walkout in Staten Island, made them reluctant to speak publicly. Amazon says he was dismissed for violating the terms of an company-ordered quarantine after he was sent home with pay for coming into contact with someone diagnosed with Covid-19. Smalls disputes that.

Strike organizers also called for Whole Foods to shut down any store where a worker tests positive for Covid-19, a demand grocery workers share with some of their colleagues employed in Amazon’s logistics network. Amazon, which says it’s doing enhanced cleaning of its facilities, has opted to keep warehouses where employees tested positive open, over the objection of some employees scared to return.

The strike was called for by Whole Worker, a coalition of current and former employees that has been working to organize workers since 2018, initially with aid from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. An RWDSU spokeswoman said the New York based union isn’t involved in Tuesday’s action. Whole Foods, whose chief executive John Mackey once said was “beyond unions,” has resisted prior efforts by workers to organize, a similar stance to its corporate parent.

(Updates with comments from Whole Foods spokeswoman)

To contact the author of this story:
Matt Day in Seattle at mday63@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Robin Ajello at rajello@bloomberg.net

Molly Schuetz

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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