Whole Foods workers hold ‘sick-out’ to demand hazard pay during pandemic

Lois Beckett in Oakland
Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

Whole Foods workers organized a national “sick-out” protest on Tuesday, demanding that the grocery store give employees double their normal wages as “hazard pay” for working on the frontlines during a pandemic.

The Whole Foods protest follows worker-organized strikes for better coronavirus protections at Instacart, the grocery delivery service, and at an Amazon warehouse in New York. Whole Foods is owned by Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, is the richest person in the world.

Whole Worker, an organization of Whole Foods employees, called on workers to stay home sick on Tuesday to pressure the company to improve health protections for grocery workers, including paid sick leave for all workers who need to self-isolate, reinstatement of healthcare coverage for part-time workers, better sanitation equipment, and the immediate shutdown of any store location where an employee tests positive for Covid-19.

Related: 'They don't care about safety': Amazon workers struggle with pandemic demand

“We are working harder than we have ever worked. We are putting our lives at risk. We deserve to have our needs met,” the group wrote in an online petition.

The petition referenced an 11 March email from Whole Foods’ CEO, John Mackey, who suggested Whole Foods employees could respond to the pandemic by donating their paid time off hours to co-workers dealing with a medical emergency, as Vice News reported.

Whole Foods employees’ starting pay rate is $15 an hour, according to the company. A Whole Foods spokeswoman said the grocery store had already increased employees’ wages by $2 an hour and increased overtime pay, as well as offering an additional two weeks of paid sick time for workers who had tested positive for Covid-19 and those in quarantine.

This week, the company had rolled out a new safety measure: “daily temperature screenings” for Whole Foods team members and Prime Now shoppers, spokeswoman Rachel Malish wrote in an email.

She called the Whole Worker protest organizers a “small, but vocal group” and said that they did not represent “the collective voice” of more than 95,000 Whole Foods employees, who “are heroically showing up every day to provide our communities with an essential service”.

“So far today we have seen no changes to overall absenteeism and we continue to operate all of our stores without interruption,” Malish wrote.

Asked if many people were out sick today, two Whole Foods employees at a store in Oakland said they had been told to direct any people with questions about the protest to the company’s official press email address, and that they could not say anything else.

At a Whole Foods store in Oakland on Tuesday afternoon, there was no visible shortage of staff. As they checked out at the registers, many Whole Foods customers were wearing face masks, while the employees doing the checking-out were not.

Outside, several customers said they had not heard of the protest, but that they did think grocery employees should be making more during the crisis, and that an extra $2 an hour did not seem like enough.

“They’re putting themselves in danger,” said Cece, a 30-year-old Oakland resident who declined to give her last name. She said her sister worked for Instacart and she would be willing to pay more for groceries to make sure employees were being paid enough.

Some customers said they were not sure if they would endorse a doubled hourly salary, but said that Whole Foods’ current salary increase was nowhere close to enough.

“It should be more than $2,” said Jessica Wybenger, 36. “Two dollars is like, ‘Oh, great,’” Justin Wilson, 47, added.

“I think it should be more,” said one Oakland woman, a 27-year-old who declined to give her name.

As she carefully transferred groceries into her baby’s stroller for the walk home, she considered what hourly wage she thought would be fair.

“Twenty dollars, maybe?”

Whole Worker did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The group had originally planned the “sick-out” protest for 1 May, the organizers wrote in an online petition, but had moved up the date to 31 March. “Whole Foods employees are already getting sick. We must act NOW,” they wrote.

Amazon fired a New York warehouse worker who had helped organize the walk-out protest on Monday. New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, said on Tuesday the city’s human rights commissioner would investigate the organizer’s firing.