The “sick-out”, planned for Tuesday, is the first collective action by Whole Foods workers since 1980. It follows several walkouts at US Amazonwarehouses, with workers complaining of unsafe working conditions and claiming that the company has been less than transparent about the spread of Covid-19 cases through its workforce.
Also striking are workers at grocery delivery company Instacart. All three companies are facing an unprecedented spike in demand as three in every four Americans enter stay-at-home mode to stop the spread of coronavirus, and accordingly turn to online companies to deliver grocery and essentials.
A call to action posted on Twitter feed Whole Worker put the striking employees’ fundamental demand bluntly: “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. We must prioritise the health of our workers over short-term financial gain.”
Among its more specific demands are guaranteed paid leave for workers who quarantine or self-isolate, funding for coronavirus testing and treatment, hazard pay during scheduled hours, and hazard pay during scheduled hours.
Also on the list of demands is the “immediate shutdown of any location where a worker tests positive for COVID-19. In such an event, all workers should continue to receive full pay until the store can safely reopen”.
A worker at a Whole Foods store in Huntington Beach, California recently tested positive for coronavirus, following cases among workers in New York. Employees in Louisiana and California reported receiving automated voicemail messages telling them a colleague had been diagnosed.
On its website, Whole Foods says that “our team members are our top priority”, and that it has offered workers increased hourly wages, social distancing guidelines, and enhanced overtime pay. It is also offering two weeks’ additional paid leave to workers who are diagnosed or quarantined, though it does not refer to those who choose to isolate or self-quarantine.
Pressure on the company is coming from above as well as below. The attorneys general of 14 states last week wrote to the CEOs of Whole Foods and Amazon requesting that they expand their paid sick leave policies, saying they are inconsistent with the social distancing guidelines issued by the CDC.
Among other things, they called on the company to provide paid time off for full- and part-time employees unable to work because their child’s school is closed or because their usual child carer is diagnosed with Covid-19.
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has also tweeted his support for the striking workers, writing that “workers at Amazon warehouses, Whole Foods grocery stores and Instacart food delivery do some of the most important jobs in America.
These wealthy corporations must give them the paid sick leave, safe workplaces, and protective gear they are demanding.”
Asked for a comment, an Amazon spokesperson said: “Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable. We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe.” In a statement, Instacart said that “Our team has an unwavering commitment to safely serve our shoppers in the wake of COVID-19, and we’ll continue to share additional updates over the coming days, weeks and months ahead as we further support this important community.”
A Whole Foods Market Spokesperson, meanwhile, offered the following statement: “As we address unprecedented demand and fulfill a critical need in our communities, Whole Foods Market is committed to prioritising our Team Members’ wellbeing, while recognising their extraordinary dedication. We have taken extensive measures to keep people safe, and in addition to social distancing, enhanced deep cleaning and crowd control measures, we continue rolling out new safety protocols in our stores to protect our Team Members who are on the front lines serving our customers.
“Team Members in our stores and facilities also have access to up to two weeks of paid time off if they test positive for COVID or are quarantined, an additional £2 per hour on top of hourly base pay, and increased overtime pay. Whole Foods Market’s longstanding open door policy encourages direct dialogue between Team Members and leadership, feedback which continues to shape the decisions we are making every day.”