Whole Foods announced yesterday that they’re cutting 1,500 jobs — a little over one in every hundred people who work for them. The reason they’re giving is two-fold: One reason is “technology upgrades” (whatever that means; I assume it means back-of-house labor is being automated so fewer people get stockroom jobs, but that’s just a guess). But the biggest reason Whole Foods says they’re cutting their work force is that they need lower prices to appeal to consumers. In other words, they can’t provide jobs because we won’t pay for them.
Why does Whole Foods charge so much for food? Sure, there’s the occasional silly, overpriced asparagus water. And Whole Foods was caught jacking up prices (accidentally or maybe not accidentally, depending on if you believe press releases) in New York stores. But jokes and isolated incidents aside, the big reasons Whole Foods charges so much for its food is both that its food is usually very high quality, and that it treats is labor force extremely fairly. Whole Foods employees make pretty good wages. They’re eligible for health insurance even as part-time workers. They have good upward mobility (Whole Foods almost always promotes from within), and — until now — they enjoyed an extremely low attrition rate. It’s the fact that Whole Foods usually treats its people so well that makes their latest move so surprising.
I’m generally a pretty big fan of Whole Foods. I try to do most of my shopping at Western because it’s locally owned (and it’s closer to me than Whole Foods, and I like it), and I also like locally owned Organic Harvest, which I’ve found to have everything I’m looking for from Whole Foods, plus a better selection of food made without added sugars. And as charming as those Whole Foods chalkboards are, the farmer’s market still has more charm, and it’s not as manufactured. Even when I do skip local stores for corporate ones, I’m usually at Publix (mostly for proximity reasons).
Still, I think Whole Foods is a pretty good company as far as corporations go, and I’ve said so many times, both here on the blog and in my book, The Localist. Even with these layoffs, which are pretty terrible for Whole Foods employees (it sucks to live in a culture of layoffs, even if you’re not the person getting laid off), Whole Foods is giving many laid off workers the chance to reinterview for new jobs at the 100 stores they’re opening soon. This is cold comfort if you’ve lost your job — reinterviewing means you come back at a lower salary than you left with, it requires relocating to a new city, and it means waiting months for the new stores to open — but it’s better than most corporations would do. The eight-week severance Whole Foods is providing to many out-of-work employees is better than most companies would do, too.
I don’t think this move by Whole Foods is cause for a boycott — I reserve my boycotts for companies like Walmart and Amazon who treat their workers so badly so often that it doesn’t even make news anymore. But I do think it’s a reminder that even a “good” corporation will still act like a corporation when it comes down to it. And it’s a harsh lesson in remembering our responsibility to pay attention to where we spend our money, and to realize that paying more for better jobs that bring more money into our communities just might be more important than the thrill of seeing a few dollars in savings at the end of our receipts.
Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist: Think Independent, Buy Local and Reclaim the American Dream, creator of 30 Days of Local Praise and co-founder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @crollwagen.