On the night of January 27, the Chicago forecast called for subzero temperatures the next day, with such high winds that it could feel like 30 below at the time when most students would be coming home from school. In light of that, Chicago Public Schools decided to close, saying “subzero temperatures and high winds will make it dangerous for children and families getting to and from school.”
Rhiannon Broschat, a single mother and a part-time Whole Foods worker, tried to find someone to watch her special needs son the next day but came up dry. So she called her supervisor and left a voicemail saying she wouldn’t be able to come in. “I did go back and forth, thinking maybe I should just leave him home alone,” she told ThinkProgress. But in the end, staying home “felt like that was my only option, I wanted to be home so he’s safe.”
The attendance policy for Whole Foods in the Midwest region is on a point system. While workers get some paid vacation days, for unexpected absences it differentiates between excused and unexcused: an excused absence is for an illness, which requires a doctor’s note, a death in the family, jury duty, and “catastrophic events or citywide weather disasters,” according to a company spokesperson. Each worker is also allowed five unexcused absences in a six-month period, and each one counts as a point against the worker. None of the days workers call out are paid.
On January 28, “Our stores were open across the city,” the spokesperson said. “City transportation was running and essential city services were open that day despite school closings.” She pointed out that “fewer than 10 of our more than 1,800 team members across 19 Chicagoland stores ‘called out’ as unexcused absences.”
Rhiannon knew that she was out of points and on a final warning, even though she says she had documentation for all of her other absences. But she assumed that the weather was a mitigating circumstance, and when she spoke with someone in leadership, she was reassured that they supported her staying home with her son. “In no way did I think that I was going to be terminated at all,” she said.
But the story changed later in the day when she was called back and informed she would need a doctor’s note, despite the fact that there was no illness. When she showed up to work a few days later, she was told her absence, and that of seven other coworkers who also called out due to the weather, wouldn’t be excused and she was terminated. (The Whole Foods spokesperson wouldn’t confirm her termination due to confidentiality reasons.)
Workers at this Whole Foods have previously protested their store’s attendance policy, walking off the job in November when they were told they would be forced to work on Thanksgiving. (The company later said its policy wouldn’t force anyone to work on the holiday.) And they went out on strike again on Wednesday to protest Rhiannon’s firing and the wider attendance policy.
Rhiannon said she and her coworkers are “just asking they take into consideration things that are not in our control.” She added that while she understands the need to have an attendance policy – “so you don’t have workers that take advantage of the company” – the current one doesn’t give the workers enough room for unexpected events. “We get sick,” she pointed out. “Everyone gets sick. We live in Chicago, look at the weather.”
The situation she and her coworkers find themselves in isn’t very unique. No workers in the United States are guaranteed a paid day off when illness strikes them or their family members, unlike many developed peers. That means 40 percent of private sector workers can’t take paid leave, but the problem is even worse for low-wage workers like those working at Whole Foods, 80 percent of whom don’t get paid sick days. Workers are also getting fewer and fewer days off in general for sickness, vacation, or holidays. That often presents workers with dilemmas similar to Rhiannon’s: go to work and leave your child at home alone, or stay home to care for them and risk your pay or, worse, your job.
Some cities and states have changed this dynamic and now require employers to offer their workers paid days off for illness. Eight laws have gone into effect in Connecticut, Jersey City, NJ, Newark, NJ, New York City, Portland, OR, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., and a handful of other states and cities could join them. But while a federal law was introduced to cover the whole country, it hasn’t gone anywhere yet.
Rhiannon says she is doing okay financially for now. She has support from her partner and her mother, as well as some savings to rely on. She’s going to school to study criminal justice and social work and putting her energy into protesting the attendance policy at her previous employer. “I have a lot of coworkers I care about at my job who are in jeopardy of losing their jobs as well,” she said. “If [Whole Foods] were to change the policy, that would be justification in itself for me.”