As social distancing — i.e., staying home and avoiding crowds as much as possible to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus — becomes increasingly the norm, many food and beverage employers are scrambling to fill gaps in the industry’s historic (and problematic) lack of sick days for employees. Whole Foods has a different approach: Motherboard reports that one of the Amazon-owned company’s recommendations is that employees “donate” their paid time off to co-workers who may be in need of more sick time. “Team Members who have a medical emergency or death in their immediate family can receive donated PTO hours, not only from Team Members in their own location, but also from Team Members across the country,” reads an email, obtained by Motherboard, from CEO John Mackey. For employees who are infected with COVID-19, Whole Foods will offer two weeks of paid time off.
A lack of paid time off, as many have reported, puts workers in a position where they have to choose whether or not to give up a day’s pay, which many can’t afford to do, or come into work sick. Per the CDC, those showing symptoms of respiratory illness are asked to self-quarantine for two weeks.
Whole Foods’ paid time off “donation” program has existed since the 1980s as a way for the then-small grocery chain to move around sick leave that would otherwise go unused. But it’s no longer that community-driven chain: Amazon purchased Whole Foods in 2017 for a reported $13.7 billion, and its CEO Jeff Bezos is the richest person in the world, with a total net worth of $105 billion. In September 2019, Whole Foods cut medical benefits for part-time workers, which at the time was said to effect less than 2 percent of its total workforce, according to the company.
Elsewhere in response to COVID-19, Trader Joe’s has announced it would provide more paid sick time to employees showing signs of respiratory illness; McDonald’s is also offering up to 14 days of paid sick leave if an employee is quarantined. Starbucks, which does offer its employees paid time off, is also extending its “catastrophe pay” program, offering pay for 14 days of self-quarantine to anyone who has had “close prolonged contact” with someone who has been diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19. It also offers the same for those actually diagnosed with COVID-19: If employees are still unable to return to work after 14 days, “additional pay replacement” will cover up to 26 weeks.