COVID-19: Whole Foods workers plan 'sick out' due to outbreak

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Tuesday, March 31, 2020
Whole Foods workers plan sickout
Whole Foods workers say they are concerned about their safety during COVID-19 crisis

Some Whole Foods workers are planning a "sick out" strike Tuesday to demand better conditions during the coronavirus crisis.

This will be the first time employees have staged a strike of this scale in 39 years, since the supermarket chain opened.

Workers are protesting what they claim to be a lack of protections, with demands that include getting double pay for the hazards of working during the outbreak.

Whole Foods says it has already increased pay by $2 an hour, offered two weeks of paid leave for workers who test positive for COVID-19 and stated workers who call out sick will not be penalized. The company also says its stores are continuing to roll out new safety protocols to protect employees who are on the frontlines serving customers. That includes deep cleaning and crowd control measures, in addition to limiting how many customers can go inside stores at a given time.

Whole Foods released the following statement:

"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 to provide our communities with an essential service. So far today we have seen no operational impact and we continue to operate all of our stores without interruption. There is no higher priority for us than taking care of our Team Members, which is why we have rolled out extensive measures to keep them safe at work, as well as an additional $2/hour, increased overtime pay, and offering an additional two weeks of paid sick time for those in quarantine or who have tested positive for COVID-19. In addition to social distancing, enhanced deep cleaning and crowd control measures, we continue to implement new safety protocols in our stores and facilities, which includes the companywide rollout of daily temperature screenings for our Team Members and Prime Now shoppers that started this week. We celebrate and appreciate our Team Members today, and every day."

But employees say that's not sufficient. They also want free coronavirus testing as well as sick pay for workers who choose to self-quarantine or isolate instead of coming in to work.

They're asking for the immediate shutdown of any store where a worker tests positive for the virus.

"COVID-19 poses a very real threat to the safety of our workforce and our customers," according to a statement from the organizers of the "sickout" that was posted on the website "We cannot wait for politicians, institutions, or our own management to step in to protect us."

A group of workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York City walked off the job and went on strike Monday afternoon, demanding the company shut down and thoroughly clean the sprawling facility after they say multiple employees there have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Whole Foods is a subsidiary of Amazon.

"People are afraid to work. People are there working and they're putting their lives at risk because there are a number of (coronavirus) cases that they are not aware of," Chris Smalls, an employee at the Amazon fulfillment center in New York's Staten Island borough who is organizing the walkout, told ABC News.

Smalls said the company is not being honest with employees about the number of colleagues who have tested positive for the virus in recent days and that management has only confirmed that one worker at the warehouse has come down with the virus.

"That's a bold face lie because I sent home the third case directly," Smalls said, adding that he knows of a total of seven cases at the facility that employs more than 4,000 people.

Smalls said the company placed him on quarantine on Saturday because he came in close contact with a worker who tested positive.

He said he sent the infected worker home on Tuesday when she was showing symptoms of illness. He said the worker was tested on Wednesday but was allowed to return to work until her test results came back positive on Thursday.

"She already had time to spread it. Her friend caught it. Her friend was the third case," Smalls said. "She tested positive and she's a supervisor in the pack department and the pack department is right before the items go out door to the customers. It's dangerous."

Smalls joined a group of employees of workers who walked off the job and formed a picket line outside the warehouse, making sure they practice safe social distancing.

"We're trying to get the building closed down and sanitized. That's all we're asking for," Smalls said.

While Small hoped that 50 to 100 employees would join the strike, an Amazon spokesperson said far fewer than that participated in the walk out.

In a statement to ABC News, Amazon said it has been working to keep employees safe at the Staten Island fulfillment center, adding that claims made by Smalls that the company is putting workers in jeopardy are "simply unfounded."

"Of the 5,000 employees at our Staten Island site, 15 people -- less than a half a precent of associates -- participated in today's demonstration," Amazon's statement reads. "Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis.

"Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable," the company's statement reads. "We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, and changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances. The truth is the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day."

Amazon employees working in the grocery and delivery services have been classified as essential workers by government officials across the country.

The company says it's upping hourly wages from $17.50 to $23 to workers at the Staten Island warehouse and paying double overtime to those who show up to work. The company is also offering extended leave to full-time employees who prefer to stay home during the crisis.

Meanwhile, Instacart "shoppers" were also planning a one-day strike on Monday.

"They are putting us directly in harm's way while profiting greatly," the organizers of the Instacart strike said in a statement.

The Intacart strike organizers added that the company was "turning this pandemic into a PR campaign - portraying themselves as the hero of families that are sheltered in place, isolated, or quarantined."

Instacart announced on Sunday that it plans to distribute new health and safety supplies to full-service "shoppers" or employees to protect them in the wake of the pandemic.

"Over the last month, our team has had an unwavering commitment to prioritize the health and safety of the entire Instacart community," Nilam Ganenthiran, president of Instacart, said in a statement. "We've been evaluating the COVID-19 crisis minute-by-minute to provide real-time support for Instacart shoppers and customers throughout North America. We're in close contact with the Centers for Disease Control and other medical experts to ensure our policies, guidelines, and resources are aligned with their recommendations as this situation evolves."

Ganenthiran said that within days of the outbreak, the company offered retroactive sick pay for in-store shoppers nationally and extended pay for all shoppers affected by the virus.

"We were the first company to launch 'Leave at My Door Delivery' to give our customers and shoppers a safer, more flexible delivery option," Ganenthiran said in the statement. "Last week, we announced a new COVID-19 bonus to increase pay as Instacart shoppers step up as household heroes for customers. And now, we've sourced, manufactured, and are distributing our own hand sanitizer in an effort to expedite distribution lead times and work around supply chain shortages."


CNN & ABC News contributed to this report.