‘Everything is unraveling’: Whole Foods worker speaks out about dangerous conditions

The following is a lightly edited interview with a Workers World member who works in a Whole Foods grocery store in late March. Workers held a nationwide sickout on Tuesday, March 31, to protest low pay and unsafe conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. After this interview, a Wawa gas station attached to the same building as this comrade’s workplace shut down because of a confirmed case of coronavirus.

Amazon workers’ strike on March 31.

Workers World: The current crisis has made it clearer than ever how important health care workers, sanitation workers and food distribution workers are to the regular functioning of society. Grocery store workers like you are truly on the front lines of this pandemic now. When did you start to realize this yourself?

Whole Foods worker: It’s been two weeks since things have been “not normal” at the store. It’s eerie in retrospect, but on a Wednesday in early March, I noticed how long the checkout line was getting. It made me wonder if there had just been an announcement about COVID-19 spreading to the U.S.

I said, “I wonder if this has anything to do with coronavirus,” and a coworker was like, “What’s that?” None of us were prepared.

Within the week we had lines wrapping around the store. They were some of the worst days I’ve worked. It gets bad on [Amazon] Prime Day, the Sunday before “Thanksgiving.” But everyone agreed it was leaps and bounds worse than the worst we’ve ever seen. I was bagging $800 orders. Prime shoppers were filling orders that required two big carts. Our job was assisting and watching people hoard food. Food that we now wouldn’t be able to access. It was an unexpectedly emotional moment to see the race to the bottom in real time.

At that point there had been no confirmed cases in Philadelphia so the fear of infection wasn’t there yet. It’s still hard to tell how much is overreaction and whether media is manipulating us to think it’s more or less serious than it actually is. When your government doesn’t tell you the truth, it’s hard to tell.

It’s been dead since March 23. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s “stay at home” order has something to do with it. Still, way more people need to be following it. I’m worried now, not necessarily for myself, but for the store becoming a locus of transmission in general. I come within 2 feet of customers every day. Just one employee being sick, one customer being sick could set off a ridiculous chain reaction. Not that I don’t want to protect my health. I’m being as careful as I can.

WW: What is the mood at the store now? How are you and your coworkers reacting to this?

WF worker: Nothing feels normal. Everyone is trying to cope with this at the same time we’re trying to work.

Most people in my community and social circle are in the service industry — not necessarily businesses that are still open in the lockdown, but a lot of them worked right up until the lockdown. For a lot of people the attitude was, “I’m going to get everything I can until I’m legally not allowed to.” Inadvisable but that was the case for many businesses, so workers had to keep going. Bars were open until Monday, March 23. People were celebrating on St. Patrick’s Day.

Meanwhile, we’re not getting paid sick time unless we’re diagnosed.

For Whole Foods workers, you have the choice to take leave to self-quarantine. But if you want to self-quarantine you’re not going to get paid. If you want to get paid, you’ve got to go to work. Some immuno-compromised coworkers have not been getting paid because they’re protecting their health. Not everyone has this choice. And there’s a kind of “invincibility factor” where some younger workers don’t think it will affect them. But you can get a severe case of this if you’re young.

WW: Millennials and Gen Z currently make up the largest group of confirmed cases in Philadelphia. (Philly Mag, March 25)

WF worker: Everyone in their 20s and 30s was working up until the very last minute that they could. About 75 percent of my coworkers are in this age group. I’m also terrified for my older coworkers. A good amount of them are still going to work. One of my coworkers in her late 50s — I want to tell her to go home, but she has bills to pay, too. We have every incentive to risk getting infected with no protection. I’m sure that has something to do with the demographic spread.

WW: You say you have no protection. What measures has Whole Foods taken since the pandemic hit?

WF worker: In terms of policies, not much has changed. The most significant change has been our hours. They’ve shortened shifts. Normally the stores are open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Now we’re opening for the first hours just for workers and people 60 or over — which I was happy to hear. There are no changes as to how many people are allowed in the store at a time. I’m worried about older customers, too.

There’s no staying 6 feet away from customers in the store. The vestibule is tiny. There are two elevators, but only one is working. There are no restrictions on elevator usage. We’re closing an hour early to “deep clean,” but they’re not paying anyone to do so specifically. They’re just paying front-end employees to stay until 9:30 p.m. to soak things with disinfectant. No professional sanitation team — just up to workers who were already scheduled to wipe and sanitize every hour.

Whole Foods has no policies or requirements on gloves. Though most of us are wearing them anyway, there’s no enforcement. Employees are not allowed to wear masks. We need approval to wear one on the clock, which is absolutely ridiculous. At some grocery stores there is a physical barrier, a plastic screen between customers and cashiers. We have none of that. At express lanes in particular, the counter is only a foot and a half long. It still seems unclear how easily the COVID virus spreads from indirect contact. There’s still a lot of uncertainty about how much protective equipment is needed.

But to answer your question, really the only difference is the change in hours.

WW: Have you received any hazard pay from Bezos and Amazon?

WF worker: Amazon announced a $2 an hour raise for all of us through April. If you’re diagnosed with the coronavirus, you get two weeks paid sick leave.

But without unlimited paid sick time, that just incentivizes going to work. Philadelphia has passed some legislation that will guarantee paid sick leave, but no other Whole Foods/Amazon workers have that. There shouldn’t be a cap on that anyway. (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 16)

There’s another attitude now among grocery store workers: “I’m going to get this anyway. I’m going to be sick. So what does it matter?”

WW: How has that affected the class consciousness of your coworkers?

WF worker: We know that we, the workers, are disposable. This is a common sentiment across everyone who works for Amazon. You’re just an arm in a massive machine. The depersonalization of it all. It boils down to: They don’t give a shit about us. It has nothing to do with not wanting to alarm customers. It has to do with the costs in providing protective equipment. A $2 raise is a bare minimum for public relations reasons. Our store has broken sales records.

Our store made $1.5 million last week; we usually make under $1 million. Yet there is a reluctance to invest in any measures to keep us healthy. Before any of this happened, part-time Whole Foods employees got their health coverage cut. This is an extension of the policies Amazon has been implementing since they bought Whole Foods.

They hired 100,000 new workers just to make up for the surge in orders. Even though we’re essential, the attitude is still there that we’re replaceable.

My co-workers are ready for full communism, let me tell you. I’ve been trying to organize my workplace off and on as these cuts have happened. I’ve worked there since the first Amazon Prime Day, right after Amazon bought Whole Foods. Every benefit that was advertised as a reason people like to work at Whole Foods is gone, eliminated by Amazon.

I’ve seen only mounting frustrations since then. Nothing has brought out the “we don’t have anything to lose here” attitude like this. People are afraid for their lives, for their health, for the health and lives of their loved ones. They’re saying this isn’t worth it. We deserve more. As important as we know our jobs are, we didn’t realize before all of this how essential the work we do is.

There is now near universal recognition of how important the work we do is — not just grocery store workers, but retail workers in general, sanitation workers, health care workers. It’s rubbing off on us. People for the first time are feeling that we have a chance to take what is actually ours. To use our position as the people who are actually holding this system together.

Imagine an overstuffed pillow. We’re the threads on those seams. Each thread is unraveling. So long as we continue to go to work, that pillow’s not gonna burst. But my coworkers are realizing we’re the ones keeping everything together.

We’re trying to focus on the silver lining. But we’re crying at work. We’re anxious. People are feeling a lot of despair and hopelessness. Just feeling left in the dust — by the government, by our employer. It’s not just us, it’s everybody in our trade. It’s everybody who’s still working right now. We’re essential workers, but our paycheck doesn’t tell us we’re essential workers. They’re only willing to throw us pocket change.

Another source of resentment and anger is that people are working from home making five to 10 times as much. None of those people are willing to go out there and risk their lives for $17 an hour. It’s always been the case that the people deciding our fate would never in a million years dream of doing the work we do. We’ve always known that.

Now that it’s coming out in such a violent, inhumane way, people are angry. My coworkers are angry. People are having a hard time staying calm during long shifts. Six days a week, 50 or more hours, with so many people working overtime. People are still picking up more hours.

And we know emotional and physical exhaustion will weaken our immune systems.

There is fear, sorrow, anguish. But a sense of hope for the first time. We are agents of history. We always are, but our alienation tells us we aren’t and that we can’t write our future, that our future is given to us predisclosed. That history has already happened. What’s keeping us going is the knowledge that we’re in a really historically significant moment. Timing is everything. I keep repeating that Lenin quote: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

So, yeah. Feeling overwhelmed? That’s because decades are happening. Expressions of solidarity are more meaningful right now. But the disrespect we receive from customers hurts a lot more right now.

WW: How else has the crisis exacerbated underlying problems?

WF worker: We service workers are so often overlooked and taken for granted. We’re so often dismissed and disrespected. But the job itself sucks; people don’t want to be here.

The timing of this crisis is absurd for my store in particular, because they’re about to announce that they’re replacing 9 of our 14 lanes with self-checkout kiosks. Every part-time worker will get their hours cut in half. I have another job — two part-time jobs — but that’s the difference between survival and not. That could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. We need to build the power. They’re going to replace us with robots. That won’t happen if we’re united and they’re afraid of us. They can’t replace all of us.

I predict the budget for loss prevention will skyrocket, by the way, once they cut part-time hours.

WW: Could you talk more about loss prevention at Whole Foods? I understand stores employ armed guards at both Philadelphia locations.

WF worker: Some security guards carry guns, yes. Not all of them at my location are licensed to be armed, so most of the time they’re not. We also have an undercover security guard at the store, not in uniform, who walks around with a shopping cart and headphones on. It’s really weird when you know who he is, because he’s just walking around looking at people, looking super-suspicious. I’m sure other stores are doing this. The ones that are super-zealous; those are the ones I worry about. The “I’m training to be a cop” people. But some of them are just workers from a temp agency and don’t care.

This is all against the backdrop of the most intense and disturbing increase in shrink and spoilage. This is an aspect of the service not many people realize since Amazon took over and started using the stores as de facto distribution centers. Think of all the packaging, fossil fuel, the energy it takes to store and pick it up and deliver products. I’ve seen pounds of meat, fish, frozen food, all of it improperly stored and thrown out.

People return orders, and they get thrown out because stuff has been out of the store. If orders don’t go out, workers need to put stuff back on shelves. Anything handpicked (like pastries) gets thrown out. Some bags have one item in them. Insulated bags and freezer bags lead to even more waste. This is at least double the amount of waste, not even close, to the scale of what we lose from shoplifting.

And when people steal, they eat the food! It’s not going to waste.

There were four security guards in the store on my last shift. I’m positive they don’t prevent much theft. They can’t detain people. They can’t chase people. Whole Foods is paying these people to stand around and intimidate people. They could be protecting workers instead of the product.

WW: Finally, can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with Workers World Party?

WF worker: I’ve been in the party for three years. I was initially brought into revolutionary politics and organizing by events of 2016, Trump’s election, and feeling there’s no hope in the system. During the summer of 2016 my partner at the time was a victim of police brutality and was disabled for life because of it. Those two events were the perfect storm for my radicalization.

I’ve been working in retail since I turned 16. In a certain sense it’s hard for me not to be a communist. Every crisis that has befallen our class, I see Workers World analyzing and amplifying those struggles.

In particular during this time I’m immensely grateful to have the network of support and organization that WWP provides. It goes beyond the party, too, to the organizations the party has relations with. It’s been really crucial to feel that I have people who have my back and are sending me good wishes and solidarity while I’m working on the front lines of this pandemic. But I also know that in the struggles in my workplace, I have a whole network of seasoned and dedicated revolutionaries to help me push through with these struggles.

This is something none of us can handle on our own. I’ve stayed a communist because capitalism has remained the defining factor in my life. That’s why I’ve stayed in the party all these years. But now WWP is providing the crucial analysis of this moment, and they have my back and the backs of my coworkers. When customers at work are making you cry and you’re beaten down, to then go home and get on a call with the comrades who are grateful for the work you’re doing — it’s more important than I can even express.

I feel more dedicated to the work than ever. Grateful for the opportunities I have to organize my class and be in the middle of this historic struggle. I think we will win. We have to. But I think that we will.

Note: As of April 4 at least some Whole Foods stores have introduced “social distancing” protocols for shoppers.

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