As many as 1,900 Whole Foods workers will soon see their medical and health benefits eliminated, the Amazon-owned grocer confirmed to Business Insider on Thursday. Currently, Whole Foods employees who work at least 20 hours a week are eligible for health care, but starting January of next year, employees will have to work full-time at 30 hours per week in order to get medical benefits.
According to a Whole Foods spokesperson, the supermarket chain is making this change — which the company said will affect just under 2 percent of its 95,000-person workforce — in order “to better meet the needs of our business and create a more equitable and efficient scheduling mode.” The spokesperson noted that part-time employees affected by the benefits cuts will receive “resources to find alternative health care coverage options,” or can “explore full-time, health care-eligible positions.”
The silver lining, apparently: “All Whole Foods Market team members continue to receive employment benefits including a 20% in-store discount.” Very cool to know that workers whose medical coverage is cut will still be able to score $4 off a $20 bag of organic goji berries!
Things have been rocky at Whole Foods since its $13.7 billion acquisition by Amazon in June 2017. Before the acquisition, the New Food Economy wrote in 2018, “Whole Foods was well known for above-and-beyond worker treatment, with better-than-average pay and benefits packages rarely seen in the grocery industry.” Since then, as Eater’s Jaya Saxena reported recently, both Whole Foods’ products and quality of life for employees have become noticeably worse.
Upset by these changes, including an elimination of stock options for lower-level workers, as well as layoffs affecting hundreds of in-store marketing staff, Whole Foods employees moved to unionize in September 2018. Shortly after, Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour, a move that was lauded as a victory for the Fight for $15 labor movement, but that also drew consternation from some Whole Foods employees who worried that the wage hike was an attempt to stop unionization.
Whole Foods employees’ ongoing organizing efforts and the slashing of medical benefits coincide with a pivotal moment for grocery store and other hourly workers across the country, who are notoriously overworked and underpaid. In April, tens of thousands of workers at supermarket chains including Stop & Shop and Key Foods went on strike against diminishing wages and benefits, and deteriorating conditions. Last month, Oregon and Southwest Washington grocery store workers voted to authorize a strike. Yesterday, thousands of unionized grocery store workers in California voted to approve a new contract with major supermarket chains, preventing a strike that could have seriously affected both consumers and business in the state.
Which is all to say: Whole Foods’ cutting of employee health care benefits “to meet the needs of business” may just throw kindling on the fire fueling workers’ desire to unionize. It certainly doesn’t help that Amazon — which, like every other major corporation that benefits from the exploitation of labor, is aggressively anti-union — is owned by Jeff Bezos, the richest person on earth with a total net worth of $115 billion (as of press time, it should be noted that his net worth had grown by a casual $1.18 billion since the day before). As Noah Kulwin wrote in a piece for the Outline prompted by the abrupt shuttering of the Washington Post’s Express commuter tabloid newspaper (also owned by Bezos), it makes little moral sense that any company owned by a billionaire should be quite so stingy with the allocation of resources, to the extent that 20 Express journalists would suddenly lose their jobs after their paper had only “recently begun to lose money.”
That nearly 2,000 part-time grocery store employees, already among the most economically vulnerable, will see their health care coverage gutted under a boss who can add $1 billion to his coffers in any given day reads like a cruel joke. But there it is, the reality of labor in 21st-century America. To workers, the answer would seem obvious: better get used to it — or get organizing.
- Whole Foods is cutting medical benefits for hundreds of part-time workers [Business Insider]