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Wheatsville Co-op criticized for penalizing workers during winter storm

Addie Broyles
Austin 360
Wheatsville Food Co-op, the longest-running food co-op in Texas, has faced criticisms for its workplace practices. Some employees say they were penalized for not being able to get to work during the recent winter storm.

When the recent winter storm knocked out power and water to thousands of Austinites, Andrea Lewis and her 3-year-old sat in their cold apartment for 24 hours before deciding to drive to the closest family member’s house in San Antonio on Tuesday, Feb. 16.

The drive took more than 2 ½ hours. She messaged her boss at Wheatsville Food Co-op to say she wouldn’t be able to make several of her shifts, she said.

Within a week, she and at least one other employee would be without a job at all.

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Lewis was scheduled to work on Friday, Feb. 19, but she was still in San Antonio dealing with another round of snow that fell Thursday night. They had no idea what was going on at their apartment back in Austin, she said, so they stayed one more night.

Management had told employees that Wheatsville was temporarily suspending a point system that is used to track unscheduled absences and can lead to termination, but they hadn't said when it would resume.

Even though Lewis ultimately came back to work on a day she wasn’t scheduled to work, she voiced her frustration about the policy on Facebook.

She said she was called into a meeting with general manager Mark Jacob and the head of human resources, Bill Bickford, where they told her she had been terminated. 

“I was furious as a mother,” Lewis says. “My daughter’s life was at risk. You say you care about employees and then do this?”

Lewis, who says she was escorted out of the store by her manager, also says she was threatened with legal action if she didn’t take her Facebook post down. 

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Wheatsville Food Co-op adjusted its attendance policy during part of the recent winter storm.

Wheatsville’s policy requires that employees who have to miss a shift for any reason or who are sick — regardless of how much paid time off they might have available — are assessed a point on their attendance record. After four points, employees can be terminated. Points aren’t on an employee’s record indefinitely as they are removed over time, Jacob said.

Jacob took the helm of the 45-year-old co-op last April, less than a year after the former general manager, Dan Gillotte, who had been with the co-op for more than 20 years, resigned. Gillotte's departure came after workers claimed he fostered a hostile work environment and a video surfaced of him singing a racially offensive song. 

At that time, current and former employees poured into the Wheatsville board meeting to share their own experiences, alleging sexual harassment, racism and retaliatory workplace practices.

Wheatsville has more than 20,000 member-owners, some of whom also spoke up at the time to ask the board to replace Gillotte with someone who had co-op experience. After a months-long search, the board announced that they hired Jacob, a grocery veteran who recently spent 15 years with Starbucks. 

New management

Jacob started the job at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and during a multi-year sales slump that continues as the co-op tries to keep the lights on at two locations. The co-op operated with one location, on Guadalupe Street, for more than 30 years. It opened a store on South Lamar Boulevard in 2013.

In an interview this week, Jacob says sales are still down but that Wheatsville has grown its number of member-owners to nearly 25,000. Wheatsville, which increased its base pay to $14 per hour last year, has about 200 employees.

Jacob said that when he started, he sat down and spoke with “everyone or almost everyone, and my goal was to build a relationship so we could meet individual needs, team needs and store needs.” 

The point system that left employees confused, worried and upset during the winter storm has been in place since before Jacob took over. But he defends the system. 

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Wheatsville Food Co-op on South Lamar, which opened in 2013, was closed during part of the winter storm that caused widespread power outages across Texas.

“I haven’t been in an organization where (the attendance policy) is as generous as it is here,” Jacob says. 

“Grocery stores are there to serve their community,” he says. “Any time someone comes to a job that is an essential service, where they are in a front line working environment, they know that when the community needs you the most, we have to be there even if we are going through our own challenges.” 

Jacob said that Wheatsville managers decided not to assess attendance points on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday during the storm. They were originally going to give points as early as Thursday to employees who missed work, but he later changed the start date to Friday, leaving many employees with enough accumulated points that they could lose their job at any time. 

Lewis, who is pursuing a nursing degree at Austin Community College, said she has already been hired for another job, but she’s still dealing with the shock of the entire situation. “Our concerns were not met with compassion,” Lewis said. “They were met with punishment. I’m like, ‘Why are you trying to scare us? This is people's lives and their loved ones’ lives.” 

Face masks, attendance points

Wheatsville isn’t the only grocery store that has a points-based attendance system, but current and former employees say they think Wheatsville's policy is quite strict. After accumulating four points, employees can lose their job if they have to take time off, even if they are sick and have a paid time off balance available. 

Another policy that has frustrated employees is one that Jacob instituted that requires employees to take a 30-minute unpaid break in the middle of their shift. Employees get a 20-minute paid break, but the new rule says they can’t take these breaks together. 

Jacob says he regularly surveys employees and solicits their feedback on any issues in the store. He says the biggest topic he’s heard about since he took the helm has been face coverings. 

One employee was approved through a doctor to not have to wear a mask, and wore a face shield instead. Customers who refused to wear masks were asked to use the curbside service instead. 

“It really helped our staff realize how seriously we were taking COVID-19,” Jacob said. 

Essential workers, whistleblowers

Dan Bruce, who started working at Wheatsville in 2013, says he started to distrust the company’s commitment to workplace safety when Jacob called an all-hands in person meeting last fall that was mandatory to attend. 

He says he raised concerns to his manager and Bickford about having everyone together for an in-person meeting when coronavirus cases were rising. Bruce did not attend and received a point for missing the presentation. 

Jacob said the in-person meeting was a gathering that staff members had been requesting and that COVID-19 safety protocols were in place. Over the past year, “we have had not a single case of internal spread,” he said, from that meeting or from daily interactions in the store.  

When employees complained about workplace conditions in 2019 dispute, they raised concerns about a lack of employee representation on the board. Jacob said the co-op tried to encourage staffers to run for board seats, but there are not currently any employees on the board and the board has not designated an employee representative position. 

Jacob says he takes employee feedback seriously and plans to implement a whistleblower policy so that any staffer can elevate a concern to the board. 

Jacob said he knows firsthand how challenging it was to get to work during the storm. The Guadalupe location had power and water and was open during the first part of the storm, but the South Lamar store lost power early during the week. On Monday when that store didn't have power, Jacob said he was at the store trying to save merchandise and had to turn away customers at the door.

As the days passed and power returned, Jacob said he knew shoppers were eager for the store to re-open and the grocery store did whatever it could to help employees get to work. A manager drove around picking up employees who couldn’t drive. Some walked.

Jacob praised those employees for their dedication to their jobs; some of those employees have said they didn’t feel safe coming to work but they were afraid to lose their jobs if they didn’t. 

'Not a good fit'

Bruce, who worked in the kitchen at the South Lamar store, had been a Wheatsville customer long before he became an employee in 2013.  

“I believe co-ops are good for the community,” he said. “I liked the environment of the Guadalupe store, and I thought it would be a good place to work.” 

Bruce started working in the kitchen at the South Lamar store not long after it opened. He says he was relatively happy with the job, but over the years, he noticed that people were reluctant to speak out about issues and it seemed like management would punish people who made suggestions.

During the winter storm, Bruce said some of his co-workers didn’t have running water at home and couldn’t take showers but were also being asked to work, even though not showering is also a violation of company policy. He then found out that his co-worker Lewis, who worked in the kitchen with him, had lost her job. 

Bruce said he only missed one day of work during the storm, and that was on Thursday when the co-op was not assessing attendance points. He said he was below the threshold that would have qualified him for termination. 

“The way they treat the workers doesn’t jive with co-op principles,” he said.

He expressed his concerns to managers about some of these policies and incidents. On Wednesday, his 41st birthday, Bruce went to work and was called into a meeting, where he was fired. 

“They told me I am not a good fit for the culture,” he said.