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Whole Foods’ “Hardcore” Worker Exploitation

by | Jul 8, 2020

file photo/The Fuge

When the COVID-19 shit hit the fan in mid-March, Whole Foods Market (WFM) did several things to try to make the workplace safer for its employees, including requiring all workers to wear masks and have their temperature taken at the start of their shift; limiting the number of customers allowed into the store; and implementing new, more stringent cleaning practices. Stores closed two hours early, and employees were given a perk: free coffee. (Small things, yes, but they go a long way.)

From a customer’s perspective, it may seem like WFM is doing everything it can to keep COVID-19 away from its stores and employees. And as an employee, I can’t complain about a lack of PPE or that the store isn’t clean and sterile. But other measures — including taking temperatures and limiting occupancy — are essentially placebos.

On its website, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists 11 symptoms that could indicate a person has contracted COVID-19. A fever is one. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, “it is possible to be infected with the new coronavirus and have a cough or other symptoms with no fever.” And infected people don’t demonstrate symptoms until two to 14 days after exposure. 

So if an employee comes into WFM and has a fever, they may already have been exposing customers and coworkers to COVID-19 for up to two weeks. And even if temperature-taking conclusively indicated whether a person was infected — to be clear, it doesn’t — the practice, at least at my store, has grown lax in recent weeks. 

I have encountered Team Members who are designated temperature-takers and have no idea how to operate the thermal cameras (which cost about $10,000 each). On more than one occasion, I’ve found the temperature-taking station deserted and had to track someone down to do it. Other Team Members have experienced the same thing. I know a few who opted not to track someone down and just started their shift anyway.

The other placebo is limiting customers. It sounds good, and it keeps the store from reaching holiday-season levels of shoppers, but there are still enough people around to make social distancing, especially for employees, nearly impossible.

Here in Portland, the limit on customers coincided with the hiring of upwards of 75 new Amazon Prime shoppers (employees who shop for people who order groceries online). The coronavirus doesn’t care whether you’re shopping with a lanyard around your neck or not.

According to the CDC’s website, people should “only visit the grocery store … when you absolutely need to.” I spend four to five days a week, for seven to eight hours at a time, inside the store. If that sounds hazardous, well, it is.

In mid-March, WFM implemented hazard pay, adding $2 per hour to what Team Members were making. At the start of June, hazard pay was discontinued. It was an unceremonious occasion. I assure you that no employees ripped the mask from their face and flung it in the air like a graduation cap, as if the virus had been defeated. 

In fact, a little over a week after the hazard pay was cut, a group text was sent to every employee in my store. “WFM alert notification,” it read. “Your location has a confirmed case of COVID-19. Your safety and health is our top priority.”

The next day, the Store Leader went around and hosted departmental meetings. All Team Members were required to attend. The Store Leader said a third-party vendor — someone who doesn’t work for WFM, but comes in every couple weeks to restock their own product —  tested positive for COVID-19.

“This person was here for 15 minutes,” the Store Leader said. “They spoke to no one, other than the individual who handed them their visitor pass, did their business and left.” WFM took the proper precautions and disinfected the entire store. And although the hazard to employees in this case was minimal, it nonetheless demonstrates that COVID-19 is still a very real threat. Perhaps it should continue being treated as such. And perhaps the essential workers that WFM has labeled “hardcore heroes” (yes, t-shirts were made) should receive hazard pay as long as the hazard exists.

Unfortunately, it seems the world is going in the other direction, trying to return to some kind of normalcy when nothing at all is normal. WFM appears to be following along.

Last week, another meeting was called. This time we were told the store would be staying open later, more customers would be allowed in, and (no joke) no more complimentary coffee for us frontline workers.

Whole Foods can and should do better.


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