Don’t Let The New Budget Whole Foods Fool You, They Still Hate Poor People

Whole Foods Market (hereafter referred to as WFM for my sanity) announced today that they’ll be launching a new brand of stores that have lower prices, because the WFM ship is sinking and their profits just get lower and lower. I am now tasked with commenting on it, because I worked at Whole Foods for over three years and my grapes just get more sour the more I think about it.

Here are my thoughts about this new sales-driving tactic. The point is for WFM to make more money, right? They’ve recognized that they can’t make more money the way they’re currently operating, and they’ve recognized that all their cost-saving measures have failed. For example: WFM not only held, but made a promise to their employees for 34 years that they would not take out more than nominal advertising because they wanted to funnel as much of the money they make as possible toward their employees. Last year, with profits falling, they reneged on that promise. They started taking out wide TV, radio, billboard, online, and print advertisements.

Until that time, they said that they were proud to have gotten business by word-of-mouth. Ergo, we can assume that word-of-mouth started failing them. And hey, when your founder and CEO compares Obamacare to “fascism” yet also writes Wall Street Journal op-eds about how Obamacare should be sacrificed to health insurance plans like WFM’s – high-deductible plans to the tune of $2500 out of pocket for each employee, it really doesn’t help. He mentions, there, the fact that our personal wellness accounts could have up to $1800 on them. Yes, up to. If my memory serves, after three years of working for WFM, my service hours had merited me a grand total of $1200 on my PWA, leaving $1300 unaccounted for. I was living paycheck-to-paycheck, and birth control alone was taking up the $1200 I was so generously given, which meant that all of my doctor and dentist appointments had to be paid for out-of-pocket. I am suffering for that reckless health plan to this day.

And the most atrocious thing? WFM does not cover any kind of psychiatric benefits at all on its healthcare plans. None. You cannot go to your general physician and talk about the cold you’re having and your depression, because you will get billed by UHC or whatever insurance company WFM uses nowadays for the entire cost of the visit. If, god forbid, you have a psychiatric emergency, you’re shit out of luck. Trust me: I was sent to a state psychiatric facility that had nonexistent resources and oversight for its patients, miles and miles away from my home, family, and friends, because on my WFM plan, I couldn’t stay at a private hospital. The wait time to get into a state facility can leave you in the ER of a private hospital for literally weeks with no option to leave, especially if you’re on suicide watch. If Obamacare is fascism, I choose fascism, Mackey, because when I was on Medicaid, I got to see a doctor for a $3 copay and I didn’t have to pay a dime for the therapy that was covered 100% on public aid. I qualified for it because of the Affordable Care Act.

This is a sneaky and underhanded way that WFM tries to save money, by sacrificing their employees’ physical and emotional well-being. You hear so often that WFM treats its employees well, and that’s because no one asks the employees who were fired from or otherwise forced to leave their jobs at the St. Louis Galleria store in 2012 because they tried to unionize (that blog, by the way, is a fascinating document that I suggest reading thoroughly). No one knows about the employees I saw framed for fireable offenses because their bosses didn’t like them. No one asked me about it after I left the company, even though I’ve been living in constant pain because store leadership told my boss that we had to keep sales at constant 20% growth, which meant that my boss drove at me to be as productive as humanly possible, but didn’t think about what that meant – which was that I would be spending 9 or 10-hour shifts, standing constantly, hunched over a turntable, squeezing viscous buttercream through a two-millimeter-wide hole and would wind up with clenched, inflexible hands, searing pain in my wrists, forearms, and elbows; nerves pinched in my shoulders that had me waking up in the middle of the night with arms that had gone completely numb, and a neck that has no curvature, sir, none. I’m 28, I have weak and too-widely-spaced shoulders and persistent pain in my neck, persistent tension headaches. This was assumed to be a normal part of having a food prep job at Whole Foods. My bosses told me to expect to walk away from my employment with tendonitis. I walked away with well more than that.

I’m not the only one, though. Hamilton Nolan at Gawker has done a series of posts on Whole Foods employees and what they really think of working there. The story usually comes out like this: “It paid better than Jewel/Albertson’s/Safeway, but management is a nightmare.” This was especially true in the Midwest Region stores, and especially true for female employees and employees of color, because at the time that I left, the entire Midwest Regional Executive Board was white and male. Most of the Store Team Leaders were white and male. Most of the stores operated as boys’ clubs, and you can imagine how that felt for the women who worked at the store and knew that it’d be an uphill battle to ever get a promotion, no matter how long their tenure was with WFM and no matter how high the quality of their work was. Whole Foods does not offer images of or bios for their regional executive boards to the public, so I have no idea if it’s changed since then. I contacted WFM for comment on that and on their lack of psychiatric coverage a few months ago and received no response. If I’m wrong about either their health plan or their demographic representation at the executive level nowadays, well, fantastic.

So the “Whole Foods treats its employee well!” claim has turned out to be fallacious, and no one knows that better than Whole Foods employees, so that’s no reason to shop there anymore. Add on to that the high prices – $6 for conventional milk! – and their tone-deafness and obliviousness, as demonstrated most recently in Baltimore, and you know what? Good. I’m glad WFM is struggling.

The kicker, of course, is that if Whole Foods was capable of opening a chain of lower-price stores with the same values, as CEO Walter Robb claims they will be doing, they could have done it in 2009, during the recession. They didn’t. They fired their concierges and other non-essential staff and fiddled with sale prices so that it looked as if their prices were lower and as if they were having more sales when, in fact, they were making up for it by upcharging on other items, especially grocery staples. Meanwhile, they’ve continued to profit off of their employees’ ill health and eliminate employees who have higher-than-average healthcare needs by using a plan that forces them not to work for WFM.

So, um, yippee? Excuse me if I’m skeptical about whatever bullshit WFM is pulling out of its behind to make this new chain happen. Continue shopping at Trader Joe’s, friends, and if you desperately need a food item that’s freshly prepped, go to your local bakery or butcher or market. It’s a better way to live the value that shopping local matters than shopping at an international corporation, anyway.


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