Thank God I don’t work at Whole Foods anymore.
That was my immediate thought when news broke that Amazon was planning to purchase the organic grocery chain for 13.7 billion dollars. If I still worked the fish counter at Whole Foods, I’d have to work harder and more efficiently — while eating fewer samples — to justify my job over Amazon’s robots.
In 2012, I had a three-month stint as a fishmonger at a Whole Foods Market in San Francisco. I worked at the store in the SoMa neighborhood. My job included organizing the seafood case and cleaning fish to customer preferences. I earned $13 an hour for my services.
But at Whole Foods, being broke didn’t mean we had to go hungry. There were perks — a relaxed atmosphere, 25-cent leftovers at the end of the day, and access to samples from the meat, seafood, and other departments. Amazon knows robots don’t need this kind of margin-eating sustenance.
Whole Foods wasn’t the best job I ever had. But it was a job. Under Amazon, it’s not clear how much human labor will make the cut.
When it comes to their workers, Whole Foods wasn’t as progressive as you might think
Before I worked at Whole Foods, my main gig was working on commercial fishing boats in Alaska to pay off student loans. I was back home in Bay Area and needed work for three months until I could hop onto another boat in the summer. A friend who worked at the store said he could get me a job in the seafood department and I jumped at the opportunity to see the fishing business from the other end of the supply chain.
The job was decent at first — free snacks and a friendly atmosphere certainly helped. I was living rent free with a friend for a few months, making the low pay less brutal. But it wasn’t until I went out for drinks with my co-workers that I began to realize the extent to which workers could not live on their wages. Over beers at a bar down the street, many of them told me they were on public assistance of some kind. There was even a public housing project a few blocks from the Whole Foods SoMa called the “Whole Foods Hotel” by employees because so many workers lived there.
Rents in the Bay Area were beginning their post-Recession climb, and there were rumors that the company was going to stick workers with increased health care costs. A month later, employees’ fears were confirmed and workers were taken off the floor in groups for a meeting about health benefits. There was a quick presentation on how Obamacare was burdening companies like Whole Foods with higher health care premiums.
Given Whole Foods treated its employees with “inclusive values,” employees were allowed to have their say through a non-binding vote on how best to take away benefits. The choices pitted employees with dependents against those without kids. Talk about being a “team.”
Whole Foods doesn’t have employees or managers, only “team members” and “team leaders.” The language is meant to evoke the folksy beginnings of the natural food movement that sprang up at food coops in the 1960s and 1970s. But this was a company publicly traded on Wall Street’s NASDAQ stock exchange. The bottom line seemed to take precedence over employees’ well-being — from what I could tell, progressive rhetoric was meant more to make customers feel good about buying $4 avocados than it was to empower employees.
But it wasn’t all bad. Whole Foods has made the Fortune 100 best places to work the past 17 years. Cultivating a positive work culture was one way Whole Foods justified its anti-union posture. The company also took a hit by choosing people over machines and by being a slow adopter of self-checkouts or other labor-saving technologies present in many other grocery stores.
Meanwhile, Amazon has never been known as a positive place to work, with long hours and untenable goals whether working in a warehouse or crafting code. Whole Foods has long postured the company was “beyond unions,” while Amazon seems to be striving to be beyond employees.
I only stayed at Whole Foods for a few months before boarding the next boat for a new fishing gig. Now, I’m on the cops and crime beat for The Press Democrat in the San Francisco Bay area. I still go to Whole Food’s from time to time--mostly to sample cheese.
Amazon’s attitude toward workers is to completely get rid of them
AmazonGo, set to open in Seattle sometime this year, is a sign of where Amazon would like to see in-store retail evolve: Walk in, pick up what you want, walk out — the product will automatically be charged to your Amazon account. No lines, no human interactions. Once the Amazon drone program passes the FAA, the product will be brought to the customer without even seeing another customer.
An Amazon spokesperson told me the company has no plans to use AmazonGo technology to automate cashiers at Whole Foods stores. He also said that "no job reductions are planned" as a result of the deal to buy Whole Foods.
Still, if I worked there now, I'd be scared.
This is Amazon’s goal: bringing products and services directly to consumers in the most convenient way possible. The more convenient, the more people will buy. Whole Foods, on the other hand, has worked on the old model of customer experience.
Walk into a Whole Foods Market, like the SoMa store I worked in, and there’s fresh, artisanal food presented by employees who are allowed to show off their eccentricities: tattoos, piercings, or whatever style they prefer. The customer experience went beyond the physical store setting: Shoppers were buying into the idea of healthful, organic living with a strong environmental consciousness and a consideration of where their food came from.
For decades, Whole Foods could charge a premium to give shoppers this self-satisfaction. But in recent years, with low-cost competitors and a continued squeeze on people’s wallets, their model faltered and shareholders were out for blood. The stock had dropped by nearly 60 percent since a 2015 high, even after the company shed 1,500 jobs in that year.
Whole Foods has never been great to its workers, but working the floor of any service job will leave one running behind on their bills. Now with Amazon entering the brick-and-mortar retail fray, their new competition is rightly feeling the shockwaves.
Customer service might no longer include wage-earning people to serve customers. This would mean the rolls of people like my co-workers needing housing like the Whole Foods Hotel in SoMa could increase if the Amazon model pushes low-wage work to no work model. These were co-workers of mine who had families to support who barely hustled up a livelihood serving organic food to affluent customers.
If Amazon flips the script on grocery and foodservice sectors, the low-wage workers at the bottom will take the hardest hit. Instead of “Fighting for Fifteen,” former workers will need to start fighting for universal basic income, a guaranteed pay when technology destroys more jobs than it creates.
But for now, my former co-workers will continue helping customers with smiles and snacking where they can, keeping the human touch in the food business as long as possible.
Nick Rahaim is a journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Check out his blog at www.outside-in.org. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @nrahaim.
Update: Updated after original publication to include comments from Amazon spokesperson Ty Rogers.