Independent worker group calls for Whole Foods ‘sick out’

NEW YORK (Reuters) – An independent group of workers at Whole Foods Market called on colleagues to phone in sick to the grocer’s stores on Tuesday to protest what they say is a lack of adequate compensation and protections from the coronavirus.

People wait in line practicing social distance at a Whole Foods Market amid an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in San Francisco, California, U.S., March 31, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The group, known on Twitter as Whole Worker, describes itself as a grassroots movement of team members at Amazon.com-owned Whole Foods who are working to unionize.

The group did not immediately have a comment, and it was not clear how many members it has. It was not known how many Whole Foods employees called in sick.

A Whole Foods spokesperson said the company had seen no operational impact on Tuesday.

“It is disappointing that a small but vocal group, many of whom are not employed by Whole Foods Market, have been given a platform to inaccurately portray the collective voice of our 95,000+ Team Members who are heroically showing up every day,” the company said in a statement.

As millions of people stay at home in the United States and non-essential businesses are shuttered to halt the spread of the virus, grocery stores and pharmacies are staying open to supply food and medicine.

The Whole Worker group is demanding, among other things, hazard pay and the immediate shutdown of any location where a worker tests positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. If a store is closed, all workers should receive full pay until the store can safely reopen, the group said on its Twitter account.

At four locations in New York, there were no apparent disruptions. In Harlem, the East Village, the Upper East Side and a smaller store in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, customers shopped while workers restocked shelves, manned meat counters or rang up purchases.

“Life is good,” said employee Humerto Ariza, 26, as he straightened health and beauty shelves. He said he got a $2-an-hour raise – which Whole Foods said earlier this month it would pay full and part-time employees – and stays healthy.

“Whole Foods is definitely doing their part,” he said, and added he had not heard about the “sick-out.”

The company said it has enhanced store cleanings, shut self-serve salad bars and this week began screening workers’ body temperatures.

As of Tuesday afternoon, total U.S. deaths from the virus numbered 3,593, out of nearly 180,000 reported cases, according to a Reuters tally.

The call for action at Whole Foods won the endorsement of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has 1.3 million members in the grocery industry.

Some workers at Amazon and grocery delivery company Instacart went on strike on Monday to call attention to safety and wage concerns for people laboring through the coronavirus crisis.

Amazon said later it fired an employee who helped organize the action at a New York warehouse for alleged violations of his employment, including leaving a paid quarantine to participate in the demonstration.

Whole Foods employs 95,000 people and has 487 stores in the United States, 14 stores in Canada and seven stores in Britain.

Reporting by Hilary Russ, additional reporting by Aishwarya Venugopal in Bengaluru, Craig Hettich and Jonathan Oatis in New York; writing by Anna Driver; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Marguerita Choy and Sonya Hepinstall

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