Organizer of Amazon warehouse walkout fired, Whole Foods sickout strike begins

Employees at Whole Foods Market nationwide planned a work stoppage Tuesday, while a former employee at parent company Amazon considered legal action after his dismissal for participation in a labor walkout Monday.

Workers for the supermarket chain, acquired by Amazon in June 2017 for $13.7 billion, are demanding improved workplace safety and benefits including hazard pay and sick pay for employees who may be sick but haven’t been tested for the coronavirus.

Whole Foods workers had originally scheduled May 1, International Workers’ Day, as the date to stage a sickout, in which they call in to say the won’t come to work that day. But concerns about contracting and spreading the COVID-19 virus between co-workers and customers led them to move up the daylong strike.

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Supermarkets and grocery stores have remained essential businesses while many other businesses have been shut down across the nation as part of “stay at home” measures ordered by governors and social distancing guidelines, extended through April by President Donald Trump.

“Many cities and states have effectively shut down, making us literal emergency workers,” the group said in a statement. “The level of risk combined with the inflated profits from the past few weeks mean that us grocery sore workers need to be fairly compensated, as well as given an option to self-quarantine without fear of being evicted.”

Workers who planned to participate in the work stoppage talked to USA TODAY but asked that their names not be used because they feared the would be fired.

After the protest Monday at an Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island, New York, worker Christian Smalls, who had organized the protest, was fired for violating “multiple safety issues,” the company said in a statement to USA TODAY. The company said it instructed Smalls to stay home with pay for 14 days due to being in close contact with an infected employee, but Smalls went to the warehouse Monday.

Workers had demanded the building be sanitized after several workers tested positive for the virus, Smalls told USA TODAY.   

On his Twitter feed, Smalls said he had been working the previous week and was sent home Saturday, however other employees who were in direct contact with an employee who tested positive were not.

Smalls is reportedly considering legal action against Amazon. “It’s a no-brainer. Anyone can see this is a direct target,” he told the news site Vice. “It’s not gonna stop me,” Smalls said. “I’m gonna continue to fight.”

Subsequently, Smalls confirmed those plans to USA TODAY.

Also considering legal options on behalf of Smalls is New York Attorney General Letitia James, who tweeted Monday night: “In the midst of a pandemic, Chris Smalls & his colleagues bravely protested the lack of precautions that @amzaon employed to protect them from #COVID19. Then he was fired. I’m considering all legal options & calling on the NLRG (National Labor Relations Board) to investigate.”

Meanwhile, Whole Foods workers say they want improved sanitation and physical distancing between workers and between workers and customers at stores. They are also seeking double-time wages for hazard pay and three weeks of sick pay for workers who isolate or self-quarantine instead of coming to work.

The supermarket chain has had several employees test positive for COVID-19 in its stores across the U.S. and Canada, according to various news reports. Whole Foods has 500 stores in North America.

The company recently increased hourly pay for full-time and part-time workers by $2 through April. They also get double pay for any overtime hour worked through May 3. All employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or quarantined get up to an additional two weeks of paid time off.

“As we address unprecedented demand and fulfill a critical need in our communities, Whole Foods Market is committed to prioritizing our Team Members’ well-being, while recognizing their extraordinary dedication,” Whole Foods said in a statement to USA TODAY.

But those measures fall short, say the workers organizing Tuesday’s protest. “It is important to note that these demands are only a starting point for these companies to do what is right. These are only our IMMEDIATE demands related to the Covid-19 outbreak,” the workers’ statement said.

“We want gainsharing/profitsharing back. We want medical insurance back for part time workers. We want sick pay in general (we have none),” the workers say. “We want raises and compensation more in line with how important what we do is for the continued function of society.”

Support and interest in the Tuesday work stoppage was significant on Twitter, with many attempting to put the protest in context. One apparent Whole Foods worker tweeted being torn between showing solidarity and knowing “none of my immigrant brothers and sisters are” participating over fear and “will be stuck with all the work.” 

Another compared grocery store workers to health care providers who “are not getting any hazard pay and have a higher risk of getting #Covid19.”

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

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