The rumors swirled at the Whole Foods in Fairmount before the store officially told all of its workers the bad news: One of their colleagues had a confirmed case of the coronavirus.
Some had already heard it through the grapevine at the Philadelphia grocery store, where employees sent text messages to each other. One found out from a friend who didn’t even work there. That’s because someone else wrote about it on social media Thursday, hours before the store informed its full staff in an automated text message.
And when Whole Foods did alert workers, it was light on details. It didn’t identify the sick employee or the department where the employee worked, according to copies of the message obtained by The Inquirer.
“There’s no transparency between us and management, so we have no idea what’s going on,” said an employee, one of five who spoke to The Inquirer on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation.
Whole Foods notified employees Monday and Tuesday of additional workers who tested positive, bringing the total to three in five days, according to text alerts sent to workers.
The Whole Foods case sheds light on how one “essential business” handled an emerging workplace issue: informing employees of confirmed coronavirus cases. And it highlights a growing concern among workers and consumers, as states consider allowing more businesses to reopen in a bid to stop the economic free-fall caused by the shutdowns. In the absence of enforceable laws regarding such disclosures, it’s up to individual businesses to decide how much to disclose and when.
A Whole Foods spokesperson said it activates a “swift and comprehensive action plan" when it learns of a presumed or positive diagnosis, which includes contact tracing and a formal notification process. The company said it can’t identify individual workers diagnosed due to legal reasons, and can’t identify anyone placed in quarantine. Stores also don’t share why staffers call out for privacy reasons, the spokesperson said.
“While we aren’t able to share details out of respect for the privacy of our team members, we are diligently following all guidance from local health and food-safety authorities, and are supporting the diagnosed team members, who are in quarantine,” the spokesperson said in an email.
While Whole Foods faces worker complaints about transparency, other grocery stores such as ShopRite and Fresh Grocer have gone a step further, telling customers about confirmed coronavirus cases at city stores in social media posts. As of Tuesday afternoon, Whole Foods — owned by the online retail giant Amazon — had not mentioned the confirmed cases on its Facebook page or website.
Workers say they believe the store could have said something sooner. Three employees said the store underwent an overnight deep cleaning days before the announcement, a sign that management may have been concerned about the sick worker well before informing staff. Although none of the workers who spoke to The Inquirer knew the sick employee’s identity, they said one person left work more than a week ago to self-isolate.
The store had a professional deep cleaning before learning of any confirmed diagnosis, the spokesperson said. The most recent deep cleaning was scheduled immediately after learning of the positive diagnosis. However, she did not say when the store learned of the diagnosis, and added that the store has had several professional deep cleanings “out of an abundance of caution.”
The Fairmount store reviewed security camera footage to see which employees the sick worker had close contact with, five employees said. Then a manager personally told workers who had been in contact to isolate themselves at home.
The use of in-store cameras is one measure utilized for contact tracing, but not the only way Whole Foods identifies staffers who may have had close contact with a worker diagnosed with the coronavirus, the spokesperson said.
There’s no law that specifically requires employers to inform workers about a positive case in the workplace. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that employers tell workers if they were possibly exposed to someone who tested positive. But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is not enforcing the CDC guidelines.
As for consumers, the Whole Foods spokesperson encouraged them to contact customer service if they want to know whether there has been a confirmed case at a specific store.
In the hours before Whole Foods sent the mass text message to staff, misinformation spread online. Two social media posts said there was an “outbreak” at the Fairmount store, even though there was just one confirmed case at the time. One Twitter post was shared by almost 2,000 people as of Monday evening, while a Facebook post was shared more than 120 times. Screenshots of the social media posts were sent in text messages, too.
Some Whole Foods staff members were informed in person before the mass text alert, and hours before the social media posts, a company spokesperson said.
The way Whole Foods handled the situation is the latest concern for the workers who spoke to The Inquirer. They expressed concerns about touching the same device to clock in, sharing small spaces for lunch breaks, and using the same restrooms, among other issues.
On its website, Whole Foods said it performs daily “enhanced” cleanings, follows social distancing guidelines, and requires workers to wear face masks while offering gloves and face shields. It has also implemented daily temperature checks for workers.
“This includes cleaning of high-touch surfaces multiple times throughout the day, including time clocks and door handles, restrooms and break rooms,” the spokesperson said. “Our stores are constantly evolving safety measures, and this store, in particular, reorganized a conference room to provide an additional break room space for team members, which allowed team members more room for social distancing in both areas.”
Whole Foods is paying workers an extra $2 an hour and double overtime during the pandemic. They can take unpaid time off without penalty through May 17, the workers said. Those with presumed or diagnosed coronavirus cases get two weeks of paid time off, the company said. Otherwise, staffers must use accrued paid time off.
“I’m in a situation where my options are either go to work and potentially get sick, or don’t go to work and then not make any money to pay my rent and not be able to afford to eat,” one employee said.
Whole Foods workers across the country were set to participate in a “sick out” protest last Friday over how the company has protected frontline workers. It’s unclear whether or how many employees called out sick to protest at the Fairmount Whole Foods that day.
The company continued to operate its stores and serve customers without interruption, the spokesperson said.