SF Whole Foods Employee Tests Positive for Coronavirus, Store Stays Open

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Whole Foods workers across the country are participating in a sickout on Tuesday to protest working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Whole Foods employees at San Francisco's Stanyan Street location were called together Saturday morning for an announcement: One of their coworkers had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Later, employees got a phone call from an unknown number. It was a recorded message delivering the same news. Whole Foods workers across the nation have received similar messages when one of their co-workers at the Amazon.com-owned grocery chain tests positive for COVID-19, including recently in Huntington Beach and Chicago.

So far, no Whole Foods stores in the U.S. have been shut down.

In a statement emailed to KQED Monday, a Whole Foods spokesperson confirmed that a worker at the Stanyan Street store had tested positive for COVID-19. The spokesperson said the safety of workers and customers is Whole Foods' top priority, and that the Stanyan Street location performed an additional cleaning and disinfection on top of enhanced sanitation practices already in place at all stores during the coronavirus pandemic.

As long as the crisis continues, Whole Foods says it is "enhancing its daily cleanliness and sanitation protocols" at all of its stores, operating under social distancing guidelines and closing stores up to two hours early to give workers more time to restock shelves, sanitize and rest.

‘They Don't Want Us to Tell Customers’

Still, two Whole Foods employees at the Stanyan Street location told KQED they have concerns about the store’s transparency with both workers and customers. The workers spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs.

“I'm super concerned because regardless of whether or not I am a healthy young man, I don't know how the coronavirus is going to affect me or the people that I know, and the people who I live with,” said one worker who attended the Saturday meeting. “They don't want us to tell customers. They want us to direct customers to our store team leader.”

The worker said management told employees that the infected person was last at the store on March 15, almost exactly two weeks before employees were told about the person's positive COVID-19 test result on March 28.

“The question is, why wasn't [that person] in the store for the last two weeks and when did they actually get notified that [that person] had coronavirus?” the employee wondered. “Whether or not they think we should be quarantined doesn't mean we don't think that we should be quarantined if we were in contact with that person.”

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Another employee said she was never notified by management and had to hear about the confirmed case from coworkers.

“A lot of people who are working at Whole Foods don't really have a choice but to go to work because at the end of the day, we all still have to pay rent,” said the employee.

The employees KQED spoke with said three workers who may have had contact with the infected worker were sent home Friday to self-quarantine – but that those three workers were back at work on Monday.

The Whole Foods spokesperson said employees at all stores have been asked to self-quarantine for two weeks if they had close contact with a coworker who is confirmed to have the coronavirus. Employees will get two weeks of pay if they isolate after contact with a confirmed case – but only if the self-quarantine is recommended by Whole Foods or a health care professional, the spokesperson said.

While the store cannot disclose details on coronavirus cases to respect workers' privacy, the spokesperson said Whole Foods gives two weeks of paid time off to workers who test positive for COVID-19.

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Workers Demand More Protections

Whole Worker, an advocacy group that describes itself as a "grassroots movement" of Whole Foods team members working to unionize, spearheaded a nationwide sickout on Tuesday to demand paid leave for all workers who self-quarantine, the immediate shutdown of any store where a worker tests positive for the coronavirus and hazard pay of double wages while the crisis continues. Whole Foods has relaxed its attendance policy in light of the pandemic, and Whole Worker said employees participating in Tuesday's sickout can do so without fear of reprisal.

"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 plus Team Members who are heroically showing up every day to provide our communities with an essential service," said a Whole Foods spokesperson Tuesday in an email, in reference to Whole Worker.

Whole Foods has been paying workers $2 per hour more than their usual wages in light of the coronavirus pandemic. But the Stanyan Street employees said that's not enough to compensate for the risk they're taking, and, echoing the Whole Worker demands, said they want hazard pay double their wages and a temporary shutdown of the store.

“They send us an email of their sales every day and they are killing it right now,” said one employee. “Just on a store level, they've already made enough to probably cover everyone's PTO for two weeks while they sanitize the store and make sure no one else has it.”

The two employees are concerned by how store leadership is communicating sanitization protocols to employees in general and want every worker to have "extensive training" on sanitization.

"We're supposed to be sanitizing our registers, I guess, every 30 minutes to an hour. But I was told by my team leader and by my store team leader that it was OK to be doing it every three hours. And then I hear again later that it's actually a different way," said one employee. "There's all these different things on our online portal website of how to actually sanitize correctly [which] I've never actually been told. And I'm the one in charge of it."

The two employees aren’t attending work Tuesday to participate in the sickout. But, like many of their coworkers, they said they can't afford to quit.

Resources

How to Buy Groceries Safely and Efficiently

During the statewide shelter-in-place order, grocery stores are among the few places shoppers can go to stock their pantries. But empty shelves, large gatherings of people and reports of sick employees are a major issue of concern for shoppers and health officials alike. Here are some precautions you can take.

How Long Should You Isolate Yourself if You Test Positive for COVID- 19?

Guidelines for how long to isolate after testing positive for COVID-19 are changing rapidly, so it's important to seek out the most up-to-date information, according to Dr. Sajan Patel of UCSF. When you do, he says, refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. Here are two routes to take when wondering when to end home isolation.

How to File for Unemployment

Californians who may be missing work because of the novel coronavirus can now apply for benefits through the state's Employment Development Department. Specific policies instituted as a result of the coronavirus can be seen here (also available in Spanish). The department is providing workers and caregivers various options to collect payment. Learn more here.

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