The line waiting to get into Whole Foods on Telegraph Ave. The store was only allowing 40 customers in the store at a time Physical distancing was in practice in the line. Photo: Pete Rosos
The line waiting to get into Whole Foods on Telegraph Ave. The store will be open despite a “sick-out” employee protest, the market says. Photo: Pete Rosos

Whole Foods Market workers nationwide are calling for an employee “sick-out” Tuesday to demand extra protection, sick leave and pay during the COVID-19 crisis, but the grocery store chain said Monday that its two stores in Berkeley will remain open despite the strike.

The protest is organized by Whole Worker, a group of employees and labor activists working at the Amazon-owned grocery chain. They’re asking all workers to stay at home for one day to secure guaranteed paid leave for all workers who self-quarantine or isolate, instead of just for those who test positive for COVID-19; health care coverage for part-time and seasonal workers; double pay during all scheduled hours; the immediate shut down of any store where an employee tests positive for the virus; and free testing for all workers through the expansion of flexible spending accounts with health insurance.

“COVID-19 is a very real threat to the safety of our workforce and our customers. We cannot wait for politicians, institutions, or our own management to step in and protect us,” Whole Worker said in a petition.

A manager at the Berkeley Whole Foods store on Gilman Street didn’t have any information about preparations for the scheduled protest and said the store will not be closed tomorrow due to the walkout. The store on Telegraph Avenue directed the inquiry to the press office for Whole Foods and didn’t confirm whether any of its employees would be participating in the strike. An employee at the Oakland Whole Foods store said they couldn’t comment, but that the protest wouldn’t affect its store hours. The Whole Foods press office confirmed all stores will be open tomorrow.

Under the shelter-in-place order instituted throughout the Bay Area two weeks ago, grocery stores are deemed “essential” businesses. As shoppers continue to flock en masse and clear the shelves at markets to stock their larders, markets have adopted extra safety measures to protect both workers and customers. According to Whole Foods, the company has been responding to the crisis with worker and community safety in mind.

“As we address unprecedented demand and fulfill a critical need in our communities, Whole Foods Market is committed to prioritizing our team members’ well-being, while recognizing their extraordinary dedication,” a Whole Foods Market spokesperson said. “We have taken extensive measures to keep people safe, and in addition to social distancing, enhanced deep cleaning and crowd control measures, we continue rolling out new safety protocols in our stores to protect our team members who are on the front lines serving our customers.”

A Berkeley Whole Foods employee hands over a disinfected basket to a shopper entering the store. Photo: Pete Rosos

These measures include two weeks of paid time off for any employees who test positive for the virus or are required to quarantine, an extra $2 per hour for all part-time and full-time hourly employees through April, hazard pay (or double pay) on overtime hours from March 16 to May 3, and a $3.34 million emergency fund for workers.

The “sick-out” protest was originally planned for May 1 but is being held earlier in the wake of recently confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Whole Foods stores in Southern California, New York, and Chicago. Some affected stores have been closed while others have remained open, according to reports.

Other grocery stores, like Trader Joe’s, are offering up to two weeks of additional sick leave for any workers with symptoms of the virus, but a similar worker petition by a Trader Joe’s worker group demanding hazard pay and guaranteed forced closure pay was unsuccessful. Target and Safeway markets, which includes Albertson’s and Von’s, are offering an extra $2 per hour to all employees, while other chains, like Walmart, have chosen to award one time bonuses ranging around $300.

Amazon Prime’s pickup service has been a popular service at the Telegraph Ave. location. Photo: Pete Rosos

On Monday, workers at Instacart, a grocery delivery business, and Amazon warehouse employees in Staten Island, New York, walked off their jobs to demand better protections against COVID-19. The protest was supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million employees working in grocery stores, meatpacking, food processing, retail and other businesses across the country. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 2020 presidential candidate, has also endorsed the Amazon, Instacart and Whole Foods protest.

“For the sake of public health and worker safety, every non-union grocery worker must speak out. If Amazon, Instacart and Whole Foods are unwilling to do what is right to protect their workers and our communities, the UFCW is ready to listen and do all we can to help protect these brave workers from irresponsible employers who are ignoring the serious threat posed by the rapidly growing coronavirus outbreak,” the union said in a statement.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...