What A Whole Foods Employee Wants You To Know About Essential Work

Photographed by Sophie Hur.
What would your paycheck have to be to make putting yourself in danger of contracting a highly-contagious virus worth it? Grocery store employees have been among the most visible faces of essential work during the Covid-19 pandemic. On top of their usual duties, they’re now also expected to sanitize their stores and perform crowd control — often without protective gear, adequate hazard pay, or sick leave.
A nationwide strike of Instacart, Amazon and Whole Foods employees began in early April, and on April 2, Amazon announced it would begin conducting temperature checks of all employees before they clock in, allow employees to wear masks, and offer 14 days of paid leave for those who’ve been in contact with a confirmed case.
We asked an Amazon spokesperson about whether workers who self-quarantine because they’re at-risk themselves or living with someone who is would be given 14 days paid leave. An Amazon spokesperson told Refinery29 that Whole Foods workers who wish to self-quarantine may use their usual paid time off, and will be able to use unlimited unpaid time off without affecting time and attendance records until May 17th. When asked whether this current policy puts employees without PTO at risk, the spokesperson denied that it does, and said that Amazon policy could in the future allow employees to receive extra PTO if they self-report symptoms and exposure. Last week, it was reported that Amazon is allegedly using heat maps to track which Whole Foods stores may be working to unionize.
The same day that Amazon announced its new temperature check policy, Refinery29 spoke with a Whole Foods team leader about what it’s like to work at their store right now.
What parts of the store are you responsible for? How many employees work under you?
I cover all of dry grocery, as well as frozen, dairy, the bulk department — that's all of the self-serve [sections], which are completely shut down right now. We’d typically be hiring, and I'd have about 25 people working underneath me. Right now, I've got over 10 employees.
It's a huge vacation spot where I live, and we have a lot of people that come through during the season.
How has this slowdown affected you and your employees?
We start our team members at $15 an hour. Whole Foods is paying us an extra $2 an hour right now. Any overtime we get is paid double time instead of time and a half. But our sales are down, and our shelves are empty. I'm writing schedules and the sales aren't supporting the hours for people to get overtime on the schedule.
So we’re flexing people around the store. Our prepared food department is not preparing foods right now, so they're packaging things, but they don't need a full kitchen of cook staff. It really hasn't been busy the last week. It's been pretty grim. I definitely feel like people are feeling very stressed. There's a lot of anxiety. Somebody asked me what to do the other day and I was like, well, if you don't want to get sent home because you're wandering around aimlessly, I would get a rag and some sanitizer and start cleaning something.
What do you wish shoppers would do right now?
I just wish they were kinder to us. We're there, we're working, we're putting groceries on the shelves for them. We're showing up. Sometimes I’m the manager in charge, and they'll call the store and say, “I was shopping and there was this girl with long brown hair that works for you. And she coughed near me, and I was trying to get away from her and I felt like everywhere I went, there she was.” They'll complain about how someone touched their face. You feel like you're under a microscope. I wish customers would realize, hey, you're walking around the store touching your face, and no one's yelling at you. It's not a job where we signed up to be on the front lines of anything. We’re doing the best we can and trying to have as much a sense of community at six feet apart as possible.
Everything’s changing so rapidly. Have you ever seen change like this? And it’s interesting that they’re saying this is the new norm. It's everywhere in the verbiage that comes down to us from global. “This is the new norm. Everyone needs to accept the new norm.” It's scary.
Do you feel satisfied with the $2/hr hazard pay?
I personally don't feel it's enough to risk it. I've seen all these memes that are like, “Everyone stay safe, don't risk your family or your health, stay inside. Oh, except for you, essential workers.” I think we’re sort of feeling like, who gives a crap about me?
Is there a feeling that yes, pay is important, but no amount of pay might be worth the possibility of getting really sick?
Right. My daughter works in the restaurant industry. It shut down weeks ago and it's takeout only, but they only need one of the servers to handle takeout, so she was laid off because her boss was like, I want you guys to be able to file for unemployment. So she's getting $800 a week or something, which is more than what several of my employees are making. I think that all of this help in the stimulus and the unemployment help is making people go, “Whoa, wait a second. I could stay home and get $800 a week.” [Editor’s note: Unemployment insurance rates vary based on earnings over a set period of time, with a maximum weekly cap.]
What sanitation and safety policies have been put in place?
We're sanitizing the whole sweep of the store every two hours. It's a constant process — door handles to coolers in the back of the house and the front of the house. Anything that anybody would touch has either been shut down, or it gets cleaned every two hours. Normally we weren’t allowed to have bleach in the stores at all.
We had a meeting and they told us that they were going to start taking our temperatures. My first reaction was like, they can’t take my temperature. I'm a smart, educated person and I will know if I'm sick and not come to work. And then my second reaction is, okay, that's good. I get why they're doing it to protect everyone. But they're not taking the customer's temperatures before they come in — so that's not protecting us.
What about protective gear?
We’ve been allowed to wear gloves, and [Whole Foods] provides them. Before, we were not allowed to wear masks. The direction was that sick people wear masks. So if we're working in our departments with masks on, it's going to give the public the impression that we're sick. [On April 2nd], a team member said to me in front of another team leader, “I feel like if customers aren't going to have their temperatures checked, then I should be allowed to wear a mask because they're going to come in here and get us sick. Who's protecting us?” And the other team leader said, “I think that policy has changed. We’re allowed to wear masks.”
[April 13th] was the first day of required mask enforcement. Team members are provided a mask (a simple disposable one with ear straps) daily at temp check before clocking in and are required to wear it for the entirety of their shift. You may wear your own mask as long as it meets CDC guidelines. Several team members left today, refusing to wear the masks at all. I wore the mask. It wasn’t necessarily comfortable, but if you believe the virus is spread the way they say it is, then it’s a small sacrifice. If there’s an executive order from the President stating everyone is required to wear masks in public, then we will not let customers in without a mask on.
If the temperature check shows you have a fever, would you be sent home with paid sick leave?
That’s if it was confirmed you contracted the virus. If a team member is sent home because they have a fever, they will receive pay that day for 5 hours only. You may return to work if you are symptom-free for 72 hours without using fever reducers. If you test positive or are in direct contact with someone who tests positive, you can collect the 2 weeks paid time. 
Is coronavirus testing accessible in your area?
Are employees self-quarantining if they’re at-risk or worried they might get family members sick?
There are several team members across the store that are calling out to self-quarantine to protect their family especially among those in the front end who deal with the registers and touch the products. There’s a team member with a family member who is at risk. When all of this started, she was like, I'm not coming to work. I'm not going to get them sick.
What’s Amazon’s paid-time off policy?
It depends on how many service hours you have; it depends on how long you've worked for the company. I used my time off already. I wish I hadn't, because now I don't have PTO to use. If you come to work with a fever, you have to go home and then you have to be fever free without using fever reducers for 72 hours. So you're looking at being out of work for at least four days without pay.
Do you fear that some of your coworkers might be coming into work even if they feel sick or have been in contact with someone confirmed to have Covid-19?
Absolutely. I think there are people coming to work that may be sick or may have been exposed or may not be feeling well, and they're really trying to suppress it, because how am I going to pay my rent? I definitely think that’s wrong. I think if someone feels unsafe, has health issues, and doesn't want to get sick, I think they should be able to stay home.
Is anyone at your store joining the Whole Foods sick-out?
No, but people are definitely talking about it. I think [our location] is different. Here, a $15 an hour job is coveted. There are so many jobs here, but they're seasonal, and this is a job that's going to pay you 24/7, 365. I think people are scared. I would say that team members in my store would be scared to make the company mad.
If other stores around your state reached out, do you feel your store would be more enthusiastic about joining the strike?
I think so. But like I said, we’re sort of off the beaten path.
What would be highest priority for you in terms of strike demands?
Hazard pay. Amazon gets a bad rap if there’s a sick employee in this Whole Foods and there’s a sick employee in this Amazon [warehouse]. Everybody's like, I'm not going to shop at Whole Foods. And then Whole Foods says, “Well, we’re going to temp check all of our team members so, you know, Whole Foods is safe to shop.” That doesn’t feel good. That doesn’t feel like, “Oh, they put this in place to protect me.” It feels like, “Oh, they put this in place to not lose money.”
If you're protecting the customer from me, but you're only paying me $2 an hour more and you're not protecting me from the customer, I don't think that's right.
Do you think Amazon will agree to the demands Amazon and Whole Foods workers are asking for right now?
I think they will pretend to and hope that all this ends before they have to.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
The coronavirus pandemic, and resulting economic downturn, has disproportionately affected some professions — doctors, nurses, teachers, small business owners, cashiers, and food industry workers are just some of the folks on the front lines. Checking In is an ongoing series where we pass the microphone to workers in industries most impacted, and ask them what they want us to know about their hopes, fears, and needs right now. Click here if you want to participate.

COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.

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