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Whole Foods Market employees go on strike amid coronavirus

Whole Foods employees across the country are going on strike, in addition to other worker's strikes during the coronavirus pandemic.  – Photo by Flickr

Working conditions of Amazon and Whole Foods Market employees have again become the subject of media attention and controversy. Members of Whole Worker’s National Organizing Committee announced a strike on March 30 to protest against Amazon — which acquired Whole Foods Market in 2017 — largely due to its failure to provide Whole Foods Market workers with masks and paid sick leave as COVID-19 continues to spread. 

Details regarding the state of Amazon employees’ sick leave were revealed in a email from Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey, which was leaked on March 13. Workers had previously been offered  unlimited unpaid time off for all of March but were recommended by Mackey to “donate” their paid time off to coworkers with sick family members, according to the email. 

Demands made by the strike organizers included double-time hazard pay over the duration of the pandemic, paid leave for employees in self-isolation, healthcare benefits for part-time and seasonal employees and closure of any Whole Foods Market location where a worker has tested positive for the virus, accompanied by full pay for remaining workers during shutdown. 

While workers went on the walk-out on March 31, Whole Foods Market locations across the nation remained open. A couple of days before the “sick out” on March 28, an employee at the chain’s San Francisco Stanyan Street location tested positive for COVID-19 but the store remained open in this event, as well. Amazon has yet to order shutdowns for any of its Whole Foods Market locations, although a new opening in Harbor East, Baltimore, has been delayed indefinitely. 

On April 2, in an exclusive with Reuters, Amazon announced plans to deploy surgical masks and temperature checks by the following week. To ensure that workers are adhering to sanitary and hygienic practices, Amazon also intends on installing monitors to review their activity.

Yesterday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made a surprise visit to an Amazon warehouse and a Whole Foods Market store (the specific locations of which are not known) to thank employees for their continued work. It is unclear what purpose the surprise visit was meant to have served, save perhaps an attempt at damage control given the backlash Bezos has been receiving from those sympathetic to the strikers and other workers. 

Interestingly enough, his visit was not attended by the temperature checks that Amazon promised it would conduct nor is there any indication that Bezos so much as offered to listen to his employees’ health and safety concerns. 

In fact, in the week since Amazon’s new measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 were announced, it is unclear whether any Amazon warehouses or Whole Foods locations have received any masks and temperature checks yet. 

Other measures Amazon has taken to address concerns surrounding the novel virus include mandatory paid two-week self-isolation for employees who test positive and improved cleaning and sanitation efforts of facilities.

Whole Foods Market slashed healthcare benefits for approximately 1,900 of its part-time employees in September 2019, according to Business Insider. Information concerning their current state amid the pandemic is not available online, although it is likely these workers, already vulnerable, will be hit particularly hard should the virus reach their locations. 

Legislation regarding the working conditions of “essential workers,” like Whole Foods Market and Amazon employees, is currently being proposed by members of the U.S. Senate and other top officials. Democrats have suggested providing essential workers with a premium pay of up to $25,000 but Republicans have yet to join the bill as co-sponsors, suggesting such a deeply ideological divide may potentially exacerbate the issue at hand. 

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