- Some Whole Foods workers say they are scared and stressed out ahead of the holidays and amid a worsening coronavirus crisis.
- Business Insider spoke with five current Whole Foods employees from different regions across the country and one who recently left the company who said employee morale is low, COVID-19 precautions have relaxed, and their teams are stretched thin. The workers spoke on a condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
- “We continue to operate under social distancing and crowd control protocols and are following all guidance from CDC and local health authorities,” a Whole Foods spokesperson told Business Insider.
- The situation mirrors a broader crisis among America’s grocery store workers.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
At a Whole Foods store in South Florida earlier this year, some employees received kitchen timers from management, who asked the workers to set them for 13 minutes, one store employee told Business Insider.
Only 13 minutes together would, in theory, mean that employees wouldn’t have to quarantine.
Earlier guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that anyone who had been within six feet of someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus, for 15 consecutive minutes, should quarantine for two weeks.
“Me not being a complete moron, I realized that this does nothing for my safety,” the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, told Business Insider. “I’m no safer having spent 20 non-consecutive minutes with you versus 15 consecutive [minutes], but it checked that box.”
Updated CDC guidelines now say exposure to the virus is cumulative, not consecutive.
As the pandemic’s spread slowed in many parts of the US over the summer and early fall, some safety measures at Amazon-owned Whole Foods stores across the country fell by the wayside, according to five current employees and one former employee who spoke to Business Insider on the condition of anonymity. The employees hail from different US regions: South Florida, Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland, and Seattle. The former employee worked at a different store in the Seattle region.
Their concerns and issues are overwhelmingly the same: They feel threatened by their work environment and frustrated by the lack of response as coronavirus cases spike amid the busiest shopping season of the year.
Their fears point to a larger trend among grocery store workers nationwide who have been on the front lines of a pandemic for nearly 10 months. Workers say they’re frustrated, stressed, and exhausted with few options for recourse.
“I don’t want to be dramatic here, but it really is the lowest I have ever seen morale,” the South Florida Whole Foods employee said.
A Whole Foods spokesperson told Business Insider that the company is committed to adhering to rigorous safety standards and prioritizing the health and safety of everyone in its stores.
“We continue to operate under social distancing and crowd control protocols and are following all guidance from CDC and local health authorities,” the spokesperson said. “Our stores are diligent in their efforts to maintain a safe working and shopping experience for all this holiday season.”
Amazon said in a blog post in October that 19,816 of its 1,372,000 frontline workers had tested positive or been presumed positive for COVID-19, though it did not break out specific rates among Whole Foods employees. Amazon estimated its overall infection rate was 42% lower than anticipated based on a comparison to the general population.
For those who test positive, Amazon offers time off with full pay.
Read more: Inside Amazon’s coronavirus response: An exclusive interview with the executive in charge of employee health and safety
‘I just feel helpless’
The South Florida employee said he felt like, in recent months, safety precautions have been relaxed at his store. Last week, a Thanksgiving dinner provided for employees was served buffet-style indoors, the employee said. Whole Foods told Business Insider that the meal was served by Whole Foods team members who are highly trained in food safety.
Workers at Whole Foods stores across the country described what they felt to be a similarly haphazard approach to employee safety. The employees Business Insider spoke with said that while mask compliance among both employees and customers has been high, many said their stores no longer station an employee at the door to monitor how many customers are in the store at a time, and all six said social distancing measures are rarely enforced.
Whole Foods said it has been conservative in limiting how many people are allowed in its stores and has sometimes been more restrictive than what’s required by local governments.
A Whole Foods employee in Chicago said positive COVID cases among employees have been growing in the past few weeks. She said as cases grow, fellow employees are reaching their breaking point, snapping at customers or needing to take a leave of absence for mental health reasons. And with schools closing down, the parents she works with are stressed as they’re left scrambling for child care.
“I’ve never seen [morale] like this before, and I worked for the company during the 2008-2009 recession,” she said. “I just feel helpless.”
An employee at a Whole Foods near Amazon’s hometown of Seattle said that as customers stock up on products ahead of the holidays and amid a worsening COVID-19 situation, shelves are left bare. The shelves are expected to be quickly restocked, but there’s not enough manpower to restock them, the employee said.
Employees at his store are getting the “bare minimum” of hours each week, overtime is limited, and vacant positions aren’t being filled as “people are quitting left and right,” he said.
“I just wish that Amazon or Whole Foods leadership understood that it’s not like we’re not trying,” he said. “Everyone there is trying and working hard, we just need more help and we’re not getting any and I don’t know why.”
One employee at a store near Bellevue, Washington, told Business Insider the low morale led him to quit this month after nearly three years with the company. Teams were so short-staffed that if someone called out sick, it would “absolutely ruin a team for days,” putting them behind in their work to the point that it felt like “Sisyphus rolling the rock up the mountain.”
Whole Foods said the company is still hiring for in-store positions and approving overtime in stores.
The situation mirrors a broader crisis among America’s grocery store workers
According to the United Food and Commercial Workers, a union that represents nearly 1 million grocery workers, more than 17,400 grocery workers have been infected by or exposed to the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic and 109 have died.
“America’s essential workers are facing a holiday season of unparalleled danger as COVID-19 cases explode across the country,” Marc Perrone, UFCW’s international president, said on a call with reporters last week. “With more than 1 million new COVID-19 cases in the past week, and deaths spiking to unprecedented levels, we are entering what could be the deadliest phase of this pandemic for millions of America’s essential frontline workers.”
Even as COVID-19 cases are on the rise, hazard pay has not been reinstated for grocery workers, despite the risks they incur on the job. Whole Foods gave employees a $500 bonus in July, and Amazon announced last week that it will provide a holiday bonus to all of its workers, including Whole Foods employees: those who are employed by the company during the month of December will receive up to a $300 bonus. The company has not reinstated hazard pay for employees since the program ended in June.
Walmart also offered cash bonuses for employees but has not raised pay. Grocery chain Kroger raised pay and handed out bonuses until mid-June. The company is now offering a “holiday appreciation” gift of fuel discounts and $100 of store credit, according to The New York Times.
It’s led grocery workers across the country to stage protests demanding hazard pay from companies like Kroger, Giant, Safeway, and Whole Foods.
During the UFCW call last week, Janet Wainwright, an employee at a Kroger store in Yorktown, Virginia, said it feels like employers have forgotten that the pandemic is still happening.
“How many more grocery workers and Americans need to die before these grocery store companies realize this?” she said.
Rachel Fournier, an employee at a Ralph’s in Los Angeles, said on the call that employees at her store are being told not to worry if one of their coworkers tested positive for the virus, and that they often feel they’re the last to know if someone they were in contact with is sick.
“There isn’t a day that goes by,” she said, “where we don’t wonder, ‘Is this the day that I’m going to get exposed or infected?'”