Two longtime workers at a Whole Foods store in Cambridge, Massachusetts allege they were recently fired in retaliation for voicing concerns over safety protections during the pandemic, the cancellation of hazard pay, and enforcement of the dress code policy to prohibit workers from wearing Black Lives Matter slogans on masks. Both workers were involved in organizing efforts with Whole Worker.

Nicholas Dukes, who worked at Whole Foods for around ten years in the Cambridge, Massachusetts area, said he was fired after expressing several concerns and filing safety complaints with OSHA and state agencies over the lack of enforcement of coronavirus safety protections.

“A decade of award winning service was rewarded with termination because I didn’t want to see my coworkers be needlessly exposed during a pandemic,” said Dukes. “I was intimidated and then fired for raising the alarm on workplace safety.”

Throughout the pandemic, as Dukes recalled, he frequently complained to management over the lack of coronavirus safety protections and the lack of enforcement of safety policies, including complaints about workers not wearing masks during shifts, especially when preparing food to be packed and sold to customers. He objected to regular violations of mask wearing and social distancing rules by those in management positions.

“I was told by an assistant manager in a conversation about wanting a safe work environment and mask wearing that ‘we don’t want people who are uncomfortable running around causing problems,’” Dukes added. “Whole Foods classifies mask compliance as part of the dress code policy.

“On Wednesday, June 24, several employees were sent home for dress code violations at the River Street, Cambridge store due to wearing clothing with messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m unaware of anyone in the company being sent home for refusing to wear a mask properly.”

Dukes explained his team leader gave him the option to either return to work on June 25 for his scheduled shifts or resign his position to seek another position within the company. But upon resigning, Dukes wasn’t provided an opportunity to apply for other open positions.

Instead his resignation was processed fully from Whole Foods and he was informed by another manager that he was given a final warning notice for leaving work unauthorized on June 22, which Dukes noted was due to safety protections not being followed in the store.

Dukes said he previously filed safety complaints against the store with the Massachusetts Board of Health and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Fair Labor Task Force, waiving his anonymity.

A Whole Foods spokesperson insisted Dukes voluntarily resigned after being provided with several employment options.

“Whole Foods Market has zero-tolerance for retaliation, and our longstanding open-door policy encourages direct dialogue between Team Members and leadership which allows us to understand and quickly respond to the needs of our workforce. Our safety measures, operational changes and daily audits during this unprecedented time have been shaped not only by CDC and local health authorities, but by feedback from individual Team Members,” said the spokesperson in an email. (Note: The spokesperson capitalized “Team Members.”)

Michael Williams, an assistant team leader at the same store in Cambridge, was terminated on August 6 after working at Whole Foods for over six years.

Williams was involved in Black Lives Matter organizing among workers, who filed a class action lawsuit against Whole Foods alleging the company dress code policy was selectively enforced to bar workers from wearing Black Lives Matter slogans on their face masks, and Williams alleges workers were disciplined, which included the termination of an employee named Savannah Kinzer.

Whole Foods claimed Kinzer was terminated for violating time and attendance policy, not for wearing a Black Lives Matter slogan on their mask.

“I really can’t see that I did anything warranting [termination]. I had just been given a $300 merit bonus,” said Williams.

The reason he was provided for termination was private Instagram posts he made criticizing Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and the cancellation of hazard pay for Whole Foods workers during the pandemic, which ended on June 1.

Mackey has opposed a national mask mandate, saying, “Think about it: Some places never even locked down their economies. You’re going to force the whole country to abide by a mask mandate? That’s a bad idea. That should be done one a local basis or not at all.”

Williams shared a copy of his separation agreement and the post. He noted his account is private and the posts in question reference or cited lyrics from the rapper Killer Mike.

“My bosses know,” added Williams. “We’ve talked about Killer Mike before.”

A Whole Foods spokesperson denied Williams was fired in retaliation and claimed they had no knowledge of his involvement in protests or organizing.

“An investigation that led to his departure was launched when a concerned Team Member brought evidence to our attention that was violent and threatening in nature. Store leadership is responsible for creating a safe space for Team Members to work. We take any safety and security concerns extremely seriously,” said the spokesperson. [Note: Again, the spokesperson capitalized “Team Members.”]

In late 2018, Tyler Robertson, a store data administrator at Whole Foods for around ten years, started Whole Worker, a grassroots group of Whole Foods workers around the United States involved in unionization efforts.

He sent out a mass email through Whole Foods announcing the formation of the group, and a few weeks later one of the workers involved obtained an anti-union video from Amazon that was distributed to management throughout Whole Foods in response.

“I survived one round of mass layoffs. After Amazon bought Whole Foods, there was a second round of layoffs. I started searching for ways to organize with like-minded Whole Foods employees throughout the company,” said Robertson. “With labor laws in the United States making a worker-led union extremely difficult to attain, we looked for unorthodox ways of organizing with modern tools, social media and encryption.”

According to Robertson, shortly after Whole Worker announced complaints about profit-sharing being taken away from Whole Foods employees, the company announced it would bring back the program and provide all employees with a $2000 Amazon stock grant. Scrutiny from the Amazon union video leaked by the group helped push Amazon to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour in October 2018.

The group continued to provide a space for workers to speak with one another from around the U.S. over company-wide issues, and Robertson continued to help run the group, though he resigned and moved to a different company in 2019.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. With common concerns over worker protections, the group saw membership double, as workers around the US helped organize a sickout on May 1st, and store protests over coronavirus protections and in support of Black Lives Matter.

Amid the protests and increase in workers organizing at Whole Foods’ 476 stores based in the US, several workers have alleged they were fired in retaliation for organizing at the Amazon-owned grocery chain as reports surfaced in April 2020 Whole Foods has been utilizing heat maps and surveillance technology to track union organizing among their employees. 

Whole Foods also rejected allegations that two other firings were retaliatory, claiming they were due to unrelated company policy violations.

Megan Murray of Philadelphia was fired in June 2020 after criticizing a manager, who provided free food and water to police during the George Floyd protests.

Katie Doan of Orange County, California was fired after leaving work temporarily during a panic attack. Doan was in charge of tallying COVID-19 cases among Whole Foods workers around the U.S. for Whole Worker.

“There’s anti-union training at the leadership level that gets passed around on a regular basis. The company also has a strong surveillance culture where they teach everybody in leadership and the store favorites to sniff out dissenters, and store leadership spends a great deal of their time watching CCTV footage,” said Doan, who worked at Whole Foods for three years. “When team members can see the retaliation, they’re scared that they could be next.”

Doan explained many of her fellow co-workers were too afraid to get involved with organizing for fear of retaliation.

She first became involved with Whole Worker in late 2018 due to frustrations over changes due to the Amazon acquisition, and being able to share her experiences with other workers around the U.S. helped her feel less alone and empowered her to improve working conditions.

“I don’t regret being involved in Whole Worker,” added Doan. “I [wanted] to be on the right side of history to fight for better working conditions and hold the powerful accountable. If that meant that I had to get fired for it, then so be it.”

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a Freelance Journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has appeared in The Intercept, The Hill, The Guardian, Denver Post, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1