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Fired Whole Foods Worker Rhiannon Broschat-Salguero: 'I'm Not Going To Choose My Job Over My Son'

By Jon Graef in News on Feb 9, 2014 10:15PM

Rhiannon Broschat-Salguero, far left. Photo via Facebook.

Former Whole Foods team member Rhiannon Broschat-Salguero has had an insult-to-injury kind of week.

Broschat-Salguero, who has been propelled to national consciousness this past after she said she was fired from a Chicago Whole Foods store for staying home with her special needs son during the second polar vortex, says she was t-boned the morning Chicagoist was scheduled to interview her. (How's that for an omen?)

"[The other driver] said the sun was in her eyes, and she just proceeded to go and just hit my car," Broschat-Salguero said with a rueful laugh. "My son wasn't in the car, thank God, so it could have been a lot worse. Minor damage, but I'm OK."

Because her son has special needs, he's naturally on her mind a lot.

After Chicago Public Schools announced last Monday afternoon, Jan. 27, that they'd be closed the following Tuesday, the 28th—a development for which Broschat-Salguero said she "did have some anticipation"—she went to work trying to find adequate child care for her son.

"I called my mother—she had work that day I had my shift at Whole Foods, " Broschat-Salguero, who had the 27th off, said.

"I called a few friends who're part-time workers themselves, and they had to work. So when I exhausted all of my options, I called my job and left them a voicemail saying, 'hey, with the school closings, and it being so cold out, I can't make it.'"

Broschat-Salguero also said that, in accordance with store policy, she called Tuesday morning to again let them know she wasn't going to come into work that day. "I spoke with my shift leader, and she was totally understanding," Broschat-Salguero said. "It didn't seem as if there was an issue."

Broschat-Salguero said that there were no problems for her arranging child care during the first polar vortex. So she said she made it to work during that weather event with no problem whatsoever. Not so the second time around. "I just came up a little short," Broschat-Salguero said.

But under a new attendance policy that went into effect this January after Whole Foods workers went on strike to get it, "absences will be excused if there was metro wide city disaster," Broschat-Salguero said.

"The policy also states that if [a weather event] affects multiple team members, [absences] would be excused," Broschat-Salguero said. "In my department alone, there were eight call-offs that day." [More on this, and the attendance policy as a whole, later].

So she assumed her absence would be excused. "I honestly did not see how they could penalize me or anyone else," Broschat-Salguero said.

It's then that she got a phone call Tuesday afternoon from her team leadership—a man, this time—saying her absence would be excused provided she had a doctor's note. This despite no one actually being sick.

When Broschat-Salguero called back and asked to clarify whether or not her absence was covered, she said the male team leader on the phone could not say.

Come Wednesday, Jan. 30, Broschat-Salguero said she heard nothing. "So I decided to go into the store and see what's up, because it's very suspicious if you're not calling me back to tell me that everything's OK if everything's OK," Broschat-Salguero said.

Broschat-Salguero said that after she went into the store, she had a brief meeting with her team leadership at the store. The leadership reportedly told Broschat-Salguero that no absences would be excused, due to the orders of the regional office.

Twenty minutes later, Broschat-Salguero said she received a phone call informing her she was fired (or "separated from the company") for abusing the company's attendance policy.

"How can you sit there and say I abused the attendance policy when I had legitimate reasons [for being absent]?," Broschat-Salguero said.

Broschat-Salguero's firing comes at what was a considerable period of goodwill for Whole Foods. They announced that they purchased closed Dominick's locations. Whole Foods also announced that they'd be building a store in Englewood.

Also, Whole Foods was ranked amongst the “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for the 17th consecutive year by Forbes, thanks to responses by Whole Foods employees. Whole Foods Market employer reviews on show a favorable, consistent four-star ratings.

Here's where some more background is needed: In January, Whole Foods amended its attendance policy.

This where the points system—perhaps you've read about it in the Sun-Times, Progress Illinois, Slate, Huffington Post, or other media outlets who've written about their policy—comes in.

Here's the policy, as explained by Keith Stewart, executive marketing coordinator for Whole Foods, to Progress Illinois' Aaron Cynic:

Each team member is allowed up to five unexcused absences or 'points,' in a six-month period. No singular attendance event would cause a team member to be separated, and excused absences are not included in the 'points' system. Team members approaching their limit of unexcused absences receive warnings and reminders, and those who exceed their limit are separated. ...

Excused absences include illness (with a note from a medical provider), death in the family, jury duty, catastrophic events or city-wide weather disasters.

Points can also be given for tardiness, though employees are also allowed a grace period.

Let's let Whole Foods Public Relations Specialist Allison Phelps, who spoke with Chicagoist over phone and email, take it from here: "When a Team Member comes in more than seven minutes past their scheduled time, a half a point is given. After six months, that half point rolls off their attendance records."

So if the Red Line stalls out, and you're five minutes late, then no biggie.

Sounds simple enough.

But, according to Matthew Camp, a fellow Whole Foods team member of Broschat-Salguero's and member of worker rights group Fight for $15, it's frequently misunderstood.

Camp explains:

In the first place, the company fails to emphasize that you carry your points for a rolling six-month period. Many people's initial perception is that one carries points for a definite six-month period, which is to say that all one's points expire at the end of June, or some other fixed date in a calendar year. The case is rather that if I get a point tomorrow, I'll carry that point until August, six months later.

Any additional point I amass I will also carry for six months from the date it was assigned to me. If in that period I accrue an additional five points, then I will be fired with out recourse or appeal.

Which Camp says is what exactly happened to Broschat-Salguero:

We had been organizing for a year as part of the Fight for 15 campaign against the points system. In early January the company announced that absences relating to illness, metro wide weather effects, family emergencies and jury duty would be excused. Rhiannon's case was clearly characterized by a weather and family emergency, and, furthermore, absences relating to the first polar vortex had been excused. Yet the company fired her all the same.

Not only did the company fire a working single mother for staying home with her son when CPS canceled school for the polar vortex, but they did so in direct violation of revisions to the point system that had gone into effect with the new year.

To further complicate the matter, the means by which one racks up points are incredibly severe. Not only do I accumulate points for falling ill and missing work, but also if I am more than seven minutes late for a shift, if I am hurt on or off the job, if I am sent home by a manager for any reason more that 1/2 hour before the end of my shift, if I experience a family emergency including death and hospitalization, for all of these reasons I can be given a point.

Broschat-Salguero said that this is mainly how she accumulated her points, tardiness by tardiness. Broschat-Salguero is a part-time worker.

Part-time workers have many benefits—including starting out at $10 an hour, well above market averages—but they don't get to pick out their schedule.

Broschar-Salguero was scheduled to work Tuesdays, a day when only she herself could take her son to school.

Tuesday after Tuesday—"10 minutes late, 15 minutes late," as Broschat-Salguero said—she got half-point after half-point, simply because she was the only person who could take her son to school that day.

That's how Broschat-Salguero got on "final warning," which she said she knew she was on.

Broschat-Salguero also said that, despite having to leave work early to be hospitalized one time, and returning with a doctor's note, her absence on that day was not excused by management. She also related the story of a co-worker who, because of car trouble, missed her work.

The store apparently said that the absence would be excused, provided the co-worker had a receipt. The co-worker gave one, yet management apparently did not excuse the absence after they said they did, according to Broschat-Salguero.

"That's gone on a lot," Broschat-Salguero said.

Back to Phelps for a minute. She said that, while stores amended their hours during the first polar vortex, they did not during the second.

"The first polar vortex came through with a bunch of snow," Phelps said. Thus, because of the heavier weather, they decided it wasn't safe for employees to come in.

"During the second polar vortex, there wasn't any snow on the ground," Phelps said. "So the regional office said that team members could come in safely."

In an follow-up email, Phelps related how the office disseminated the message:

Whole Foods Market has an alert system in place to inform Team Members when a store is closed or opening late due to weather. When a Team Member is hired, they provide a phone number or email address that is used to communicate when a store is closed or opening late due to weather.

When the first polar vortex swept through Chicago, that system was used and Team Members knew when and if to come to work. During the second round of the polar vortex the following week, the communication was not sent out, meaning they were expected to arrive for their shift and business was usual. Late arrivals were excused that day to give Team Members extra time to get to work.

If this system was indeed in place, Bruschat-Salguero didn't get the message. She said that employees at her store were told about the excused absences for the first polar vortex through word of mouth. That word of mouth system was also in place during the second, according to Broschat-Salguero.

"Everything is word-of-mouth," Broschat-Salguero said. "In the first polar vortex, it was just by word-of-mouth that points weren't given out that time. It wasn't leadership saying, 'OK, if you guys can't make it, we're not going to discipline you for it. It was just by word-of-mouth."

So when Broschat-Salguero couldn't find child care, she said she thought "that would be an adequate reason to excuse my absence," particularly since she has a special needs son who can't be left home alone.

Here's a natural question: why didn't Broschat-Salguero simply call a co-worker to cover her shift? Here's why: you can't.

According to Camp, Broschat-Salguero, as well as co-workers and fellow Fight for $15 activists Jose Rodriguez and Trish Kahle, if you want to have a co-worker switch shifts with you, you have to go into the store yourself with the other co-worker and write down on paper what schedules are being switched.

No phone calls, no online switches. On paper.

“[She] didn't have enough time to ask someone to switch with her, because she had Monday off,” Rodriguez said. “We can't switch [schedules] via online, so it becomes useless to come in to the store. We live in a digital age, yet we cannot be like, ‘hey man, you want to switch with me?’”

Kahle says there's more:

"In order to switch shifts, you have to get the signatures in person of 1) the co-worker you are swapping with, 2) your Team Leader (department manager) and 3) a store manager or assistant store manager before the request is valid," Kahle said.

Furthermore, according to Kahle:

Additionally, if you switch with someone, it can't change their hours for the week. So, for example, if a full time employee wants to get rid of a shift, they can't give it to another full time employee (because they would get overtime) or a part-time employee if it would push them over their respective hours cap (20 or 30). This really restricts the number of people you can swap with, even when taking a shift in return, because not all shifts are the same length.

Basically, swapping only works if you're aware of the need to do it well in advance.

Oh, you have to do it with 48 hours notice. [Though Phelps, for her part, says, "While we like a 48 hour notice of shift coverage, it is not necessary, especially in an emergency situation."]

So, with all that in mind, Broschat-Salguero opted to stay home. "I'm not going to chose my job over my son," Broschat-Salguero said.

Camp describes a less than ideal working environment.

“Under these circumstances, one can well imagine the extremely high turnover rate at our workplace; the culture of fear and anxiety that predominates our experience there; and the sheer impossibility of maintaining mental, physical, and social health while working for the company,” Camp said.

“We all do our best to give all there is, to provide the best costumer service, but even then, they only see us a number,” Rodriguez said.

So Camp and others are fighting. They want personal days and sick days, which they do not have, and the ability to pick out a schedule, which they do not have.

According to Phelps, here's what part-timers do get:

Part-time employees receive medical, dental and vision coverage; a generous Team Member Discount; Gain sharing; 401K; stock option plan; stock awarded based on service hours; coverage for domestic partners and common-law spouses; free parking at many locations (Halsted included); and free Team Member Assistance Plan, which assists Team Members with help finding care for the elderly family members or children.

For Broschat-Salguero, her wants are pretty simple. She just wants her job back.

"l wasn't a bad employee. The whole point of this whole campaign is to show that these things happen," Broschat-Salguero said. "People die, there's different problematic situations that you can't get out of. They don't take it under consideration. "

A call-in for Rhiannon Broschat-Salguero will take place Wednesday. Broschat-Salguero also said she was appealing her termination under the company's fair hearing process, which Phelps said is judged independently.

"There are checks and balances to make sure people are treated fairly," Phelps said.

Phelps said she, nor store management, could not comment about the specifics of Rhiannon Broschat-Salguero's firing due to Whole Foods policy.