Amazon’s Whole Foods strips part-timers’ insurance; shows need for Medicare for All
Whole Foods worker Victor Hernandez stocks apples in the produce section at a store in Coral Gables, Fla. | Lynne Sladky / AP

Proving that workers cannot rely on employers or the private insurance industry for their health care, the Amazon-owned Whole Foods specialty and organic grocery chain announced Sept. 12 that it is stripping medical benefits for nearly 2,000 of its part-time employees.

Previously, putting in 20 hours a week earned workers the option to buy in to the company’s health care plan. Under the new policy, it will take 30 hours to qualify. The move will essentially push part-time workers to either apply for full-time status in hopes of keeping their health insurance, look for another job that offers health care, or enter the private insurance market on their own.

A Whole Foods corporate spokesperson tried to spin the move in a statement to media, saying workers’ health care was being cut in order “to better meet the needs of our business and create a more equitable and efficient scheduling model.”

Whom exactly the move would be more “equitable” for was left unsaid.

The spokesperson characterized the workers affected as just “a small percentage” of the company’s workforce, but finally bluntly said that that small percentage “will no longer be eligible for medical coverage through the company.”

Whole Foods claimed it will provide workers with “resources to find alternative healthcare coverage options” or the chance to “explore” moving to 30-hour “full-time” positions. It then said that although part-time workers and their families will lose their health insurance, they can still enjoy a “20% in-store discount” on the grocery chain’s notoriously high-priced products.

While the company peddled consolation prize discounts on groceries, the workers themselves were more worried about how they’ll be able to take care of themselves and their children when they get sick.

One worker who has been at the company for 15 years told Business Insider that she was “devastated” by Whole Foods’ announcement. She spoke anonymously out of fear of retribution by her employer. She and her family are all currently covered by the health insurance plan she purchases through her job at Whole Foods.

To stay covered, she’ll have to work at least 30 hours to qualify as a full-time employee. Of course, 30 hours is not a full-time job, and Whole Foods offers no guarantee that workers will get more than the 30-hour minimum, even if they apply to go “full-time.”

If workers get a 30-hour position to keep their health insurance, they could still be left in a financial bind: not given enough hours by Whole Foods to pay all the bills, but not having any time left to work the second job they’ll need to survive.

The anonymous worker who was interviewed said she’ll increase her hours, if she can, in order to keep her benefits and hopefully be able to afford childcare. Her other option will be to shop for a new (and likely more expensive) health insurance plan of her own on the private insurance market. She said, “I’m in shock…. I’ve worked here 15 years. This is why I keep the job—because of my benefits.”

Though Whole Foods didn’t plan it, the company’s move to strip health insurance benefits from workers shows why Medicare for All is needed. With a public, single-payer health system, access to medical care would not depend on a person’s employment status, how many hours they worked, the insurance premiums they paid, or how much deductible they could afford.

In Canada, where Whole Foods and Amazon also operate, not a single employee is without health care, as all workers are covered under that country’s single-payer Medicare for All-style public health system.

WHOLE WORKER – a campaign by Whole Foods workers to unionize their workplace.

Online retailer and tech giant Amazon bought the grocery chain in 2017 for $13.7 billion. Amazon has tried to maintain the pro-environment, pro-farmer, socially-conscious image that Whole Foods had used in its marketing for years. Bowing to public pressure, the company even upped wages to $15 an hour in late 2017.

However, the wage increase was coupled with immediate cuts in hours, effectively canceling the paycheck boost. Many of the workers who today are losing their health insurance because they don’t work 30 or more hours, did actually work that many hours before the $15 wage increase.

One Illinois-based worker reported that as soon as the $15 was announced, part-time workers at his store saw their 30-hour schedule shrink to 21 hours, while “full-time” workers got their 37.5 hours chopped to 34.5. The worker provided documentation to The Guardian that showed despite the boost to $15 an hour, his department’s percentage of the budget allocated for paying wages stayed relatively the same—due to the reduction in hours.

The cut in hours did not come with a cut in responsibilities, however. “We just have to work faster to meet the same goals in less time,” the worker said.

“This hours cut makes that raise pointless as people are losing more than they gained, and we rely on working full shifts,” another said.

Amazon warehouse workers, meanwhile, were forced to trade their stock vesting plans and bonuses in exchange for a $15 minimum wage.

Whether it is stealthily slashing paychecks under cover of a wage boost or stripping health benefits, Amazon continues to demonstrate the same cut-throat practices with its grocery chain that have helped it dominate the online retail space. And despite the public spat between President Donald Trump and company CEO Jeff Bezos (the richest person in the world), Amazon is being helped in its efforts by pro-corporate Republican policies.

After the Trump administration’s corporate tax cuts, Amazon ended up paying $0 in federal income taxes for 2018, even though its profits doubled from $5.6 billion to $11.2 billion over the previous year.

The Trump-GOP Tax Cuts and Jobs Act slashed corporate taxes from 35% to 21% and left open several tax loopholes that allow big companies to avoid paying income taxes on almost half of their profits, according to a report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.


CONTRIBUTOR

C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.

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