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I originally posted much of this in the current rec'ed diary.  I should state from the outset that I worked off and on at the local Whole Foods for about three years, and loved nearly every minute of it.  I got along with all my fellow employees (team members), enjoyed many of the customers (though jeez there are some people that think that they are the most important thing to darken the doorway) and I left when I needed to because of school reasons, so I have no axe to grind with the company.

I still shop there and honestly I probably will continue to shop there, if only because I know where everything is, can get what I want and know what the bargains are.

Let me start with the positives because I don't want this to feel like some sort of hatchet job.

  1. There were scheduled and regular sessions setup so that team members can get pay raises/job reviews, most people in my dept would make 1-2 bucks more after a couple of years with the company, which just seemed like a good and steady progression to me and I liked that it was organized.
  1. Each department gets a labor budget, it is an estimate on the amount that will be needed for the month, so Christmas and Thanksgiving would get a larger pool due to the increased need in labor.  Now, if you over perform, which is to say sell more stuff than expected, that excess in the labor budget goes into "gain sharing" which is divvied based on hours worked and can result in a pay check (every month) with an extra 400-600 bucks, which was always nice.
  1. Benefits were easy to get and someone was there to help you understand and sign up for them.
  1. You do get a good education in what food is what and all the terms and meaning in the industry, regardless of department and position.
  1. Staff and store management tended to be responsive to concerns and would take a good idea and run with it.  So you did feel like it was your store.

Okay with that all said now for the lowlights:

  1. You might not know this but every single Whole Foods store receives a copy of the Wall Street Journal everyday for their employees to read.  I'm not sure how relevant that is, but hey take it for what it is worth.  This might mean something a little more considering that Mackey has his own little WSJ photo and probably can write an op-ed whenever he wants.
  1. I would guess that every single store has like a defcom plan for if some union rep came in and tried to organize a store.  There is a degree of anti-union animus even among rank-in-file employees, though I am not sure how much of that is region/popular culture, as it would be attributed to corporate culture.  
  1. In the mere three years that I was there, the store got ever increasingly more "corporate."  Stringent dress code policies, a constant parade of random VPs (who btw did not follow said dress code policy) pressuring for more and more sales.  Less store based decision making and more regional and company wide mandates.
  1. In our market we had a Wild Oats, due it its proximity, Wild Oats closed and its employees were absorbed into the store.  Within one year of this merger I would hazard a guess that as many as 75% of the Wild Oats employees were no longer with the store.  Also, prices on many items went up by 15-20%.  At the time our cat food was $13.59 a bag, today it is $16.59 and mostly due to the lack of competition in the market (another nearby WFM in another region has a lot more competition and the food is at its original $13.59).
  1. If you are worried about organics or even "nice produce" consider that that ANY conventionally grown item in the store is likely available at the local Kroger (or like store), and I dont mean yeah they both have Pink Lady apples, but the EXACT same apples, from the same vendor, picked at the same time.  The difference is about 50 cents more per pound at WF.  The same would be true of organics offered at other stores too.
  1. A warning on prepared food items...  Anything you buy that is "prepared" be it chopped up watermellons, soup, or something from the hot bar, is likely not something you would buy in its raw form.  Which is to say, gnarly produce that wont sell, meat that is a day or two from spoilage etc...  Dunno just something to think about before you cough up 7.99lb on some mashed potatoes and some asian inspired beef dish.  I'm guessing that most stores do this though as it is a way to cut down on shrink and also adds value to an otherwise worthless product.  As a decent to good cook, I refuse to buy anything that is not only more expensive but also less quality.  (Go next time and see how many items use ground beef, sausages or bits and pieces of fish)
  1. Most employees do not shop at WF (at least this store was like that), despite a 20% discount because it is too expensive, it feels like one of those Ford employees should be able to afford a Ford.  When I say "do not shop" I mean that WF is not their primary store, that is not to say they don't buy the occasional item or beverage or loaf of bread.  I however did make it and still make it one of my main sources of food.  So maybe my teammates were cheap or I am a sucker.  Corporate does track how much people spend and their average ticket and has that as a statistic for improvement.  They track it through use of your discount card.
  1. Finally, each year employees vote on the new benefits package, what kind of health plan, what kind of personal days and how many, retirement and stock options etc...  If you are savvy in the employment/legal fields you will realize that this is very similar to an in-house or owner sponsored union, which is a violation of the NLRB, but I have not done enough of the research to determine if this is a true violation, though I will say my labor law professor about had a heart attack when I told her.  It's one of the things I liked about working there, but it is also the main reason why WF employees think unions are meaningless and just take your money for dues.

Just some food for thought.

***Update*** Some have asked me about the health benefits at Whole Foods, since I guess that is the genesis of the controversy.  To quote myself below:

Mackey actually explains it fairly well in his op-ed, but he does leave out a few important details.  1) premiums keep going up, just like everywhere else, or deductibles or well the quality of the policy in general; 2) because the benefits package is actually voted on, that might mean that either single/married/or family insurance might be worse depending on the situation.  Which is to say there I think is one plan, you just choose to add more people to it, which could disadvantage certain groups; 3) Mackey mentions the flex-card and says that employees get up to 1800 dollars a year.  That's true, what he neglects to say is that the starting employee gets about i think 400-500 dollars a year and to reach the max benefit requires one to achieve at a minimum of 10k work hours, or five years with Whole Foods (it might be more than that I don't have my last statement of benefits).  There is sort of tiered system for how much your policy is based on your number of hours of service to Whole Foods.  So starting at 400 hours you get access to some of the benefits, full access at 800, and from then on the amount you pay is reduced or the amount you pay for dependents is also reduced.  At about five years Whole Foods will pay for the entire policy including your family.(that is not to say they pay deductibles or co-pays, just the policy that would normally be taken out of your check)  Finally, the plan you do have access has such a high deducible that it tends to be catastrophic care, and the flex-plan is your sort of stop gap to that point, but what do you do once the insurance kicks in but doesn't cover certain things?

All in all it's not a bad plan, but the problem with Mackey is that he seems to think that reform would somehow hurt Whole Foods, when a public option, universal coverage, and cost controls would likely make it cheaper for Whole Foods and like companies to control health costs.  Mackey's hubris is thinking that the entire country runs itself like Whole Foods and is a Fortune 500 Best place to work.  Obviously they are not and obviously Mackey doesn't understand the plight of the small business person or someone that is self employed how hard it is to spread the cost of a policy around.  Likewise his opinion regarding unions assumes that Whole Foods doesn't need a union so neither does anyone else.  While it might be true that Whole Foods operates just fine without a union (which is to say workers get a fair shake) it is not true that other industries or companies are similarly situated.  Additionally it would be interesting to note wages/benefits at Whole Foods where in that particular region the are next to no grocery workers in unions, I would guess that the labor market there demands lower pay and less benefits.

Originally posted to Tzimisce on Thu Aug 13, 2009 at 09:53 AM PDT.

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