Whole Foods workers say conditions deteriorated after Amazon takeover

Michael Sainato
Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Since being bought by Amazon two years ago, employees at Whole Foods say their working conditions have declined markedly amid pressure to push Amazon Prime deals and memberships, plus widespread understaffing, increased workloads and labor budget cuts.

Amazon announced in June 2017 it would buy Whole Foods. In interviews with 24 Whole Foods employees across the US, workers described an increasingly pressured environment and the erosion of Whole Foods’ corporate culture.

Related: Prime Day: activists plan protests in US cities and a boycott of e-commerce giant

Workers interviewed were reluctant to speak on the record for fear of retaliation.

“Amazon has changed the company so much to the point where I can’t recognize Whole Foods any more,” said one Whole Foods worker in California. “It sends chills down my spine every day to see the store I love bombarded with everything and anything Amazon, from the Prime signs, Amazon lockers, Amazon meal kits and the Prime shoppers.”

In September 2018, a group of current and former Whole Foods workers organized Whole Worker, a group for workers to organize collectively to push for improved working conditions.

In a mass email sent to Whole Foods employees by over a dozen current and former workers with Whole Worker on 21 June, the group characterized Whole Foods’ relationship with Amazon as a subordinate to Amazon, where workers are primarily used to sell Amazon Prime memberships and deals.

A Whole Foods team member in the south-west US said: “Cashiers are currently trained to ask each customer if they have Prime. In the fall, they are rolling out signing up for it at the guest service desk. They are aiming for 35% of product purchases to be items on Amazon Prime sales, even if the guest doesn’t have Prime.”

A Whole Foods team leader who runs a meat department in the north-east US noted training for new employees now include sections about Prime benefits for customers. “It had nothing to do with customer service, expectations or requirements. Simply just the benefits of Prime, from everything to answering questions on Kindle, Amazon tablets, Amazon Fire Stick and Amazon music,” they said.

A Whole Foods worker in the Pacific north-west region claimed Amazon kiosks are replacing Prime lockers in Whole Foods stores throughout the region, where Prime customers can drop off and pick up Amazon orders.

“Whole Foods is not an independent company that has an investment or something from Amazon. It is a grocery retail outpost for Amazon, and it’s there to push online sales, Prime memberships and Prime devices,” they said.

A Whole Foods representative told the Guardian in an email: “Our Team Members are the heart of Whole Foods Market, and we are proud to continue to have one of the highest ratios of full-time/part-time employment and hourly starting wages in the industry. We have not cut labor hours as a result of increasing minimum starting wage to $15 per hour.”

However, numerous workers in different Whole Foods departments said they’re pushed to prioritize Amazon-related tasks over everything else.

“We must have large signs over our Prime deals, additional signs on the displays and samples or we get asked about it constantly,” said a Whole Foods team member who works in a specialty department in the Rocky Mountains region.

Several Whole Foods workers told how one of the Amazon-related changes is that understaffing has become the norm. Full-time workers said their hours have regularly been reduced from 40 a week to 35 to 37 in the wake of Amazon enacting a $15 minimum wage for all its employees – thus rendering any rises in pay almost non-existent.

“I have worked for the company for over a decade and have seen the most recent crunch of labor since the $15 hour minimum was implemented,” said a Whole Foods employee in the midwest.

The worker claimed their schedule was cut to 27 hours a week, despite being a full-time employee and working in an understaffed department. “They continue to give us more and more tasks and more checklists and things that need to be done, but our hours continue to be cut.”

A full-time Whole Foods team member in the mid-Atlantic region noted: “Now I’m usually scheduled 36 to 37 hours a week” since the Amazon minimum wage increase.

Another Whole Foods worker in California told the Guardian: “Our store has been labor deficient or compressed since the winter of 2018. We were successful, busy and a great environment. Then we stopped hiring, cut hours, moved people around to patch holes.”

A buyer and supervisor for Whole Foods on the west coast said: “We don’t have the manpower to get product on the shelves for customers, and we don’t have time for customer service because we are constantly playing catch-up.”