The Austin Chronicle

The Whole Foods Cure for Herpes

By Lauri Apple, October 25, 2002, News

"We care about team member happiness and excellence," proclaims Whole Foods Market's official employee handbook -- but apparently that doesn't apply to the seven cleaners laid off at the company's South Austin bakery facility this month. Given only 10 days' notice, the employees, all of whom are Hispanic, were informed that they would be replaced by an outside cleaning service that the company says can fulfill the workers' jobs as well as other duties more efficiently. "It really was just a simple business decision," says Nona Evans, a spokeswoman for the Austin-based grocery chain.

Sean Grote, whose wife Ofelia Garcia will be formally laid off when her unpaid maternity leave ends on Dec. 12, says he understands that companies occasionally downsize. What irks him is that so far this year Garcia has accrued at least $1,000 through Whole Foods' flex-benefits plan, which gives workers the choice between investing in health insurance, a 401(k) plan, stocks, or simply receiving cash back at the end of the year. Most of the seven laid-off employees chose the cash option, but because they won't finish out the year at Whole Foods, they won't get the amounts they've accumulated.

"I feel the timing here is suspect," Grote said, adding that in the past his wife received between $1,000 and $1,500 at the end of December. "Whole Foods will keep that money now. We pretty much count on that money all year." With a newborn soon on the way, they'll miss the money even more. Another laid-off employee is also pregnant.

Evans says the employees -- "team members," in official parlance -- were strongly encouraged to apply for other jobs within the company, including open positions within the same baking facility. Aside from Garcia, though, none of the other six chose to reapply, although two of them have joined the new cleaning company. Several of the more experienced employees also have gotten severance pay, Evans said. She denies that the workers would have normally received the cash sum from their flex-benefits accounts, but says they would have retained their accumulated hours and other benefits had they sought employment in other Whole Foods departments. "It is a bit confusing, due to the language," she said of the benefits plan.

Yet Garcia, who has logged thousands of hours cleaning offices, machinery, floors, etc. at the South Austin bakery since she was hired over three years ago, always received the money from her flex account in the past, says her husband. Furthermore, she was just months away from receiving a couple hundred shares of company stock (trading at around $49 at press time). While the company offered her the chance to reapply, "Nobody has said they would secure our benefits," said Grote. "That question has been asked specifically by everyone." Why not transfer Garcia and the other affected employees to other departments directly, he asks. "If they were really offering another position, the workers shouldn't have to reapply."

Whole Foods' list of "core values" promises an empowering environment for workers, and in some ways the company lives up to that claim -- suggested by its recent rankings in the top half of Fortune magazine's list of 100 best American companies to work for. Company policy limits the salaries of CEO John Mackey and other top executives to no more than 14 times the average salary of all full-time employees -- a relatively narrow ratio, considering that during the Nineties many CEOs made several hundred times the standard employee salary. The company's proxy statement reflects that in 2001 Mackey, the company's highest-paid employee, earned $265,000, plus $93,500 in bonuses, stocks, and other compensation. Not exactly minimum wage, but by contemporary tycoon standards rather modest. But despite the company's declared commitments to animals, people, and the planet, Mackey is vociferously anti-union, having notoriously compared tolerating labor unions to having herpes: "It doesn't kill you, but it's unpleasant and inconvenient and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover." Unimpressed by Mackey's rhetoric, employees at Whole Foods' Madison, Wisc., store voted in July to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union, becoming the first Whole Foods workers to unionize. (The company has appealed the vote to the National Labor Relations Board.)

Since receiving the lay-off announcement, Grote says he's tried to represent his wife in discussions with company representatives. "She doesn't make waves," he says of Garcia. "None of these workers do." Garcia emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. four years ago, and shortly thereafter her sister helped her get the job at Whole Foods. A shy, soft-spoken woman who speaks little English, she was earning $8 an hour before taking pregnancy leave -- slightly more than most of her colleagues, but still not enough to be able to actually afford shopping at Whole Foods, she says. She always showed up on time, she says, and had even worked 50-hour weeks despite back problems that sometimes required hospital care.

While on the job Garcia met Grote, who has since found employment elsewhere. "If nothing else, at least that was a good experience," Grote said.

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