Dozens of demonstrators picketed a Whole Foods Market in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood Wednesday and demanded that store management reinstate an employee they say was unjustly terminated last week. Rhiannon Broschat said she was fired last week after calling off work due to the inclement weather. Broschat, a single mother, was unable to find someone to care for her special needs son Alexander last Tuesday when the Chicago Public Schools cancelled classes. On Wednesday, Broschat received a termination notice for violating the company's attendance policy.
“I called to let them know my struggle,” Broschat said. “To my surprise, they called me back the next day to tell me I was terminated. This left me with questions because we had a new revised attendance policy that stated inclement weather would be an excused absense.”
Before protesting at the store, located at 3460 N. Halsted St., the protesters picketed the regional offices for Whole Foods on Lasalle Street in the River North neighborhood. The protesters were joined by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who spoke out in support of Broschat.
“We have companies that claim to have family values,” Lewis said. “We have a government that claims to promote family values. And yet when we see what family values are, they do not look like what happen to Rhiannon. You do not fire people who are taking care of children in inclement weather. That is not only unjust, the policy itself needs to be evaluated.”
Matthew Camp, another Whole Foods employee at the Lakeview location, joined the strike and said he was working both the day Broschat was hired and the day she was fired.
“Whole Foods is a company that says it's fighting poverty worldwide,” Camp said. “Whole Foods is also a company that says it stands by women as primary caregivers. How can you stand by women and take my coworker and kick her out in the cold?" Camp called the attendance policy “criminal and heartless.”
Keith Stewart, executive marketing coordinator for the Whole Foods location, said he could not share information about current or former team members, but referred Progress Illinois to a statement about the company's attendance policy. The policy reads, in part:
Recognizing that everyone has personal reasons or unexpected events that occasionally cause us to be late or miss work, our attendance policy in the Midwest region of Whole Foods Market is designed to provide support for our team members when these things happen. This includes a combination of excused and unexcused absences to provide for the most flexibility.
Excused absences include illness (with a note from a medical provider), death in the family, jury duty, catastrophic events or city-wide weather disasters. 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.
Demonstrators say the “points” system outlined by the company is unfair, and Broschat's absence should have been excused.
“This is a clear violation of that policy,” said Trish Kahle, a Whole Foods employee who works at another location. “It targeted a single mom who needs the job just as much, if not more, than the rest of us. We're out here demanding her reinstatement, demanding full back pay.”
Broschat said she believes many companies have policies that negatively impact women workers, especially in the service industry.
“These policies that these companies have are just unjust, especially for females working in the retail and fast food industry,” she noted.
After demonstrators lined up alongside the front doors at the Whole Foods store, some entered the business to deliver petitions in support of Broschat's reinstatement. The petition, created by Broschat via Moveon.org, has received more than 500 signatures thus far. Kevin Brown, a former Snarf's worker who was among the workers fired by the sandwich shop just before Christmas, helped deliver the petitions.
“I know first hand what it's like to be fired unfairly from a job,” said Brown. “Whole Foods workers and others came out for us when we were fighting back, so I thought I'd show support and solidarity and come out for them too.”
The Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, a union of retail and food workers seeking improved working conditions and an hourly $15 minimum wage, helped organize the Whole Foods action.
“Having a union like this, gathering all this support, is what is needed so policies like this will come to light,” said Broschat. “I do need my job. I have a child to support. I didn't do anything wrong except for stay home with my son when it was cold. I made the right decision.”
* Aricka Flowers contributed to this story.