The constant anxiety of working at Detroit’s Who...

The constant anxiety of working at Detroit’s Whole Foods during a pandemic

As Whole Foods workers around the country strike to demand COVID-19 benefits and in-store precautions, one local worker reveals the fear and paranoia that fill each shift.

Person shopping at Whole Foods in front of store sign.
Credit: Whole Foods Market®

ESSENTIAL DISPATCHES: Detour Detroit is spotlighting the stories of people whose jobs have been deemed “essential” under the Michigan’s directive issued last week that aims to keep most people at home. While many businesses have been forced to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19, others are still open, with tens of thousands working and interacting with the public

Grocery stores have become the latest flashpoint of concern, now that they’re one of the few places many people practicing social distancing are exposed to crowds of strangers (and potential disease vectors). Stores have increased precautions, but haven’t prevented some employees from contracting the virus. 

At Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, cases have been reported at stores in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. Though the company faced blowback for an internal email earlier in March that suggested employees could donate their sick leave to coworkers facing medical emergencies, they have since introduced policies that acknowledge the critical situation for workers. 

All workers received temporary pay increases through April ($2 an hour in the U.S.) and unlimited shift callouts; corporate has increased the pool of their emergency fund for workers facing financial hardship; and anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed under quarantine gets an additional two weeks of paid leave.

In a statement, a Whole Foods spokesperson said the company is “committed to prioritizing our Team Members’ wellbeing, while recognizing their extraordinary dedication,” and that they’ve taken “extensive measures to keep people safe, and in addition to social distancing, enhanced deep cleaning and crowd control measures, we continue rolling out new safety protocols in our stores to protect our Team Members who are on the front lines serving our customers.”

But Whole Foods workers who say the company isn’t doing enough to protect their health will go on strike Tuesday. They’re staging a sickout to demand paid leave for people who self-quarantine and self-isolate, health care benefits for employees without coverage, higher hazard pay, better sanitization procedures and store closures when an employee tests positive.

While the normally chaotic Whole Foods in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood has gotten emptier as people adjust to the realities of sheltering in place, employees still live and work in fear. Below, one employee, who requested anonymity to protect their job, shares what it’s like on the shop floor.

The day before the Governor announced the stay-at-home order, I came into the store and there were at least 200 people there. I just thought, ‘This is so unsafe.’ There are way too many people in a small, crowded space around food. That’s when I got really worried about COVID-19. That night, they instituted a policy that there would be a limited amount of people in the store at any given time.

I know my job is an important one, because people need food. I truly think there’s a need here to have more health-based conversations around food with Detroiters. That’s what drew me to working for the company. 

But it’s begun to increasingly worry me that, although the grocery store needs to remain open so people can have food, we are just going to become a hotspot in Detroit for the passing of the virus. I’m so conflicted. Do I show up? Or should I stay home? But I can’t stay home because what if I get fired? I don’t know. It’s a weird headspace to be in.

The store itself has set up precautions, like taped-off lines at the cash registers, but it requires traffic control from our already limited staff to even make that happen. Last week we had to repeatedly tell people, “please stand behind the line,” “please don’t be next to this person” or “please step away,” which I saw customers react really poorly to. They got upset or offended or were like, “Why? This is so inconveniencing.”

I do believe people are taking the stay-at-home order more seriously now. Things are quiet and eerie — some of us are trying to avoid customers as much as possible by physically distancing ourselves, but you literally cannot do that if you are working on a register or at a service counter.

Most customers seem a lot more keen on maintaining personal space away from others. I still wish Whole Foods would limit customers’ access to certain areas of the store, like any self-serve area where people are reaching in to grab unwrapped items such as in bakery and produce.

Some of my coworkers are very, very anxious. We are all feeling very scared going into this week, with the projected amount of cases, and there have been a lot of call-offs from workers at the store. I am worried that other workers might potentially get sick and still come to work. People just don’t have access to go to a doctor, and when you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, you can’t miss a day.

When I come home from work, I immediately change my clothes and take a shower every single time. I wash my hands; even though I wear gloves all day at work, I immediately wipe down everything with a Clorox wipe, every surface I touch as I come in the house. For produce, I’ve been unwilling to buy anything that’s not packaged. I’ve been extra picky and paranoid when I come home. I’m really worried about bringing the virus to my people at home. 

I hope that more people stay home and take social distancing seriously. If they are going to come to the grocery store, I’d ask that they are only purchasing what they actually need, and they try to get in and out as quickly as possible. I don’t think people need organic skincare masks and shampoo. I don’t think they need 25 packages of toilet paper and whatever bougie stuff they’re buying.

I wish there were stricter policies, actually enforced on the ground. Whole Foods has the ability to inconvenience people, and that’s better than the alternative. I would ask corporate to put their employees and their customers ahead of the financial gains.

I’m a healthy individual, so I don’t necessarily fear for myself, but I fear that I could be spreading it. I just feel like I’m part of the problem. So do I show up and deliver this “necessary” thing to people? Or do I help solve the problem and stay at home?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Are you an “essential” worker in Metro Detroit with concerns about COVID-19? We want to hear about your experience: email kate@detourdetroiter.com.