How one vulnerable Pittsburgh worker is struggling to navigate Whole Foods' COVID-19 paid-time off policy | Coronavirus | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

How one vulnerable Pittsburgh worker is struggling to navigate Whole Foods' COVID-19 paid-time off policy

Whole Foods on Centre Avenue in Pittsburgh - CP PHOTO: RYAN DETO
CP photo: Ryan Deto
Whole Foods on Centre Avenue in Pittsburgh
Like many people in Pittsburgh, Dave English is worried about coronavirus and potentially contracting and spreading COVID-19, the disease it causes. Before all the closures were announced last week, he spoke to his doctor because he was concerned his asthma and recent bout with shingles could make him particularly vulnerable to coronavirus while on shift at his job at Whole Foods on Centre Avenue in Pittsburgh.

When local, state, and federal governments started announcing coronavirus closures and social distancing rules, grocery stores like Whole Foods were deemed essential, and so they remain open. Whole Foods responded to this by offering its employees emergency paid-time off (PTO) related to coronavirus.

An email obtained by City Paper that was sent to Whole Foods employees from management, reads that “all Amazon employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine will receive up to two weeks of pay.” (Whole Foods is owned by tech giant Amazon.)

After reading this email, English went back to his doctor to get an official self-quarantine note and then approached management to request his emergency PTO. But English was denied that request. He says corporate management told him that since he didn’t have COVID-19, he didn’t qualify for the time off.

“I told them I need to take time off. Then store leadership in Rockville, Md. determined that I was not eligible,” says English. “I thought the whole idea is to stop the spread. This is not a two way street. But no one seems to care if I get [coronavirus], and that would be contributing to a public health care crisis.”

Whole Foods is currently defining quarantine based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC website states “isolation and quarantine help protect the public by preventing exposure to people who have or may have a contagious disease,” but doesn’t specifically call for vulnerable people, like those with asthma, to self-quarantine. However the CDC website does say people with asthma should “stay home as much as possible to further reduce your risk of being exposed,” during a COVID-10 outbreak in a person’s community.

Allegheny County has reported 31 positive cases of coronavirus, including one death. At a press conference today, Allegheny County Health Department director Debra Bogen said "We have community spread in our region.” In the Pittsburgh region, only limited testing is available at some local hospitals and health-care facilities, and is only open to people who showcase COVID-19 symptoms.

English works in the butcher department and says he only currently has two days of PTO. Some of his co-workers felt for English, and corporate management suggested he take advantage of the company’s policy where workers can share PTO days.

But given the on-going pandemic, English says he didn’t feel comfortable with other worker’s PTO because they might need it when they feel the need to self-quarantine. He said that in these circumstances, shared PTO is just “pitting people against each other.”

In response to the coronavirus, Whole Foods announced temporary pay raises of $2 an hour for all full- and part-time workers. Whole Foods Market stores are also now closing two hours early “to give our Team Members more time to restock shelves, sanitize our stores, and rest in preparation for the next day,” according to a press release. Soup, salad, and hot food bars have been temporarily closed, as well as self-serve sections like antipasto, olive bars, and poke bowls.

Whole Foods has also doubled its emergency support and team member assistance plans funds as response to the coronavirus. A Whole Foods official said English was offered assistance from the Team Member Emergency Fund, which is available to all Whole Foods employees faced with an unforeseeable emergency or critical situation.

English says he's a little irked with corporate’s response to his situation, given the financial success the company has seen in the short and long term. English says that since the coronavirus closures, the Whole Foods on Centre Avenue has had similar customer volumes to the holiday seasons. He says the store is very profitable.

On top of that, Amazon is one of the richest companies in the world and is owned by the richest person in the world, Jeff Bezos. Amazon made over $11.9 billion in profits in 2019. In February, it was reported that Bezos was worth $130 billion by himself.

“That is great that we are making so much money, when are we going to see those benefits to our work life,” said English. He acknowledged the $2 raise, and said it was a nice gesture, but noted that many employees at the Pittsburgh store are still freaked out.

“One employee is taking all of his PTO,” said English. “He is burning all his PTO to help his dad who is vulnerable. People there are taxed, stressed, and horrified.” 

According to the email obtained by CP, Whole Foods is offering unlimited unpaid time-off through the end of March, as a response to coronavirus. 

And it is not only English who is pointing this out. A pressure campaign against Whole Foods has been started by Judd Legum, a journalist who has recently successfully pressured Darden, which runs Olive Garden and other chain restaurants, to institute paid sick leave policy for its workers. Legum recently started a campaign to pressure both Whole Foods and grocery giant Kroger to improve its PTO policies.

Legum reports that part-time workers at Whole Foods don’t receive paid sick leave. And Legum writes that even full-time staff like English are placed in precarious situations because of coronavirus

“Full-time workers at Amazon and Whole Foods generally do receive paid sick leave,” writes Legum in a post in his newsletter Popular Information. “But if those employees are currently out of sick leave and feel ill, they are in the same situation as Amazon's part-time workers.”

This appears to be the same situation that English is in. He doesn’t have enough PTO to self-quarantine for an extended period of time, and using other co-workers’ PTO could put them at risk for the same situation down the line. Allegheny County officials have said they expect that number to increase as more people get tested.

English is worried for himself, but also his co-workers. He is in his 40s and asthmatic, and says work at Whole Foods during this busy time is taxing. COVID-19 was initially thought to only pose a severe health risk to older people, but the CDC recently reported that about 20% of people ages 20-44 who have contracted COVID-19 have been hospitalized.

“I am single, and a goofball, but I am a realist,” says English. “What things should we fund? Human services first. Despite my interest in arts, you can’t say that they are more important right now than human services.“

Some states, like Minnesota, have declared grocery store employees as emergency workers, which lets them qualify for grants, free childcare, and other social services.

English is also a performing puppeteer, but his big showcase at the New Hazlett Theater was canceled because of the coronavirus. He has done some digital shows, and plans to continue on his Facebook page, but knows that it won’t be enough to make up for the wages earned at his Whole Foods job, not to mention pay for the health insurance his job provides.

But he is unsure of his future at Whole Foods given his lack of PTO to take a self-quarantine. He said without significant emergency paid-time off, he will likely look for other employment where he can work from home.

“The main thing for me is that I would like to continue to work there,” said English. “If I have the COVID-19 PTO and avoid it for at least two weeks, I would love to just get back to where I was. But at this point I don’t know. I really hope they come through for me and everyone who works there.”

Comments (0)