(Update: Whole Food responds. See below). As the world acknowledged International Women's Day on Saturday, activists spent the day outside of a Tampa Whole Foods spreading awareness to the plight of Rhiannon Broschat. a former Whole Foods employee in Chicago who was fired after she was forced to care for her special needs son during the recent polar vortex and unable to make it to work. The firing prompted nationwide protests urging for Broschat's reinstatement, including in Tampa.
Two activists opened the protesting at 10 in the morning, with 12 to 15 coming throughout the day to hand out flyers and increase awareness. One of the activists, Samantha Bowden, who described herself as a customer of Whole Foods, noted a certain irony in the company's image and its treatment of Broschat.
“I started shopping at Whole Foods and Fresh Market after I stopped shopping at Publix because of the way they treat the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the migrant labor that really produces the value, it wouldn't give them the money to actually live off, so I have a heart for this kind of fight and figured that I would go and do my last shopping at Whole Foods and tell management how I feel, give them a flyer and let them know that they have a corporate image crisis. They sell responsibility, but when they're selling out their workers while saying 'we sell free trade coffee that respects coffee growers,' it's disingenuous.”
Beyond Broschat's inability to attend work, local activist Kelly Benjamin felt that her affiliation with movements such as Fight for 15, which ispushing for increased wages for food and retail workers, may have played a role.
“What Whole Foods doesn’t want people to know was that she was a part of organizing a union and that firing may have had something to do with that than it was her staying at home. Here it is, International Women's Day, and people are stepping into their Whole Foods to talk about this firing and other issues. It's not fair and not only is their inequality in the workplace gender wise, but as a whole these companies make billions of dollars and can afford to pay their workers a little bit more.”
“She didn't deserve this whole fiasco,” added Bowden, “and I hope that people see workers who are fighting this fight for 15 that we're fighting to get a union and decent livable wages, that they see that people care if something happens to them like it happened to that woman in Chicago, then they'll be a little more motivated to come out on strike and get involved.”
Benjamin hoped that these protests can play a role in filtering the message through to the corporate level, showing there is a public outcry and forcing changes to be made in what are admittedly difficult state restrictions for worker's to organize.
“They tried to push the issue under the rug and pretend it didn't happen. So what's happening across the country. They're trying to ignore the fact that they're paying workers horribly, workers are organizing across the country, including in Tampa and are trying to fight for higher wages. It's a hard thing to do in a right to work state.”
(Update: Whole Food spokesman Jeremy Jones wrote to CL after the publication of this post on Monday to object to the fact that he was not contacted before this story was posted. Here is his response in full).
"There is a lot misinformation out there, and while we can’t comment on matters involving current or former Team Members, it’s important to know that NO TEAM Member is ever separated due to a single unexcused absence."
"Our policies are flexible, meaning they are created with the success of our Team Members in mind. Some have speculated that the Chicago incident was related to labor union organizing, and this is completely false. Our Team Members are never prohibited from doing this and have the freedom to make such decisions. That freedom is just one of many examples of why Whole Foods Market has made FORTUNE magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” for 17 consecutive years."
"In regards to Ms. Benjamin’s comment that we are “paying workers horribly,” this is simply not true. The average hourly rate of pay for our Team Members is $18.89 per hour, which is among the best in the industry. In addition to that, we offer paid time off and benefits."