Across the country, grocery stores have been deemed one of the few “essential” businesses allowed to remain open. Which means that essential grocery workers are at particular risk of being exposed to COVID-19. Some grocery chains have taken it upon themselves to change their paid sick leave policies, while workers at Trader Joe’s have petitioned for better benefits and hazard pay. But now, workers at Whole Foods are calling for a “sick out” on March 31, demanding the resources and benefits “to do [their] jobs safely.”
Whole Worker is a group of Whole Foods team members who are not officially unionized, given Amazon’s (Whole Foods’s parent company) long history of union busting. In a petition, they call on all Whole Foods employees to not go to work on March 31, and note that “Whole Foods has temporarily relaxed its strict attendance policy, which means that team members can participate in this act of protest without fear of reprisal.” They are staging the “sick out” in response to the lack of protections they feel management has given them, which put both workers and customers at risk.
Demands include guaranteed paid leave, reinstatement of health care for part-time and seasonal workers, hazard pay, and the immediate shut down of any Whole Foods location where a worker tests positive for COVID-19. “Amazon and its subsidiary Whole Foods dared to keep open an Amazon warehouse and two Whole Foods stores where employees tested positive for COVID-19,” the group writes. “We must prioritize the health of our workers over short-term financial gain.”
Whole Foods had already announced that any employees “diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine will receive up to two weeks of pay,” and Amazon contributed $1.6 million to a Team Member Emergency Fund. Employees also have “unlimited call outs,” and are receiving extra pay through April. However, the company has also come under fire for encouraging employees to “donate” their PTO to each other when Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, is literally the richest person in the world, and could easily cover those expenses. Whole Worker says their “fundamental needs” are still not being met by the company’s new policies, which have been put in place piecemeal over the past few weeks.
Organizer S (who requested anonymity) clarifies that the “unlimited call outs” are unpaid, and that while workers with COVID-19 can receive two weeks pay, it’s difficult. “At first they required a positive test (very difficult to obtain) and now they claim to have lifted that restriction, but the requirements are murkier and payment is very slow,” she says. “People can quarantine if they have savings or accrued PTO, but most of us don’t have much of either,” so many workers are stuck in the same position of choosing between their health and their paycheck. “What we’re asking for is an expansion of PAID sick leave for all employees, so that workers can make the decision to come to work for themselves.”
Whole Foods employees are not the only food service workers who feel the need to resort to a strike to have their needs met. Today, Instacart workers have planned a nationwide strike over the lack of paid sick leave and hazard pay, and in all likelihood due to that threat, Instacart has caved to some but not all of their demands. And Amazon workers at a warehouse in Staten Island are planning a walk out, after Amazon decided to keep the warehouse open after a worker tested positive for COVID-19.
It is strange, to say the least, that a grocery store is now a place where two of our greatest needs are at odds with each other — the need to stay safe by keeping away from people, and the need to eat. A strike or sick out holds extra weight now. But the people handling food and delivering it to your door need protections, and it’s clear corporations, unless pushed, are only willing to give a minimum to keep workers and customers safe. After all, sick food workers usually didn’t have access to sick leave two months ago. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to get permission to stay home if you have a fever.
Update, March 30, 2020, 3:10 p.m.: Updated with new statements from a Whole Worker spokesperson.