Friday WTF?: Whole Foods Says Speaking Spanish Is “Unsafe” For Its Working Environment

By Andrea Plaid

Whole Foods

Whole Foods, the grocery-store signifier of the “personal is political” and social responsibility, has been busted for some sketchy business practices antithetical to its progressive hype, like union-busting as well as maintaining low wages and failing to support farmworkers.

Let’s add language surveillance to that list. From NBC Latino:

Two employees at a Whole Foods Market store in Albuquerque say they were suspended last month after complaining about being told they couldn’t speak Spanish to each other while on the job.

Bryan Baldizan told The Associated Press he and a female employee were suspended for a day after they wrote a letter following a meeting with a manager who told them Spanish was not allowed during work hours.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Baldizan, who works in the store’s food preparation department. “All we did was say we didn’t believe the policy was fair. We only talk Spanish to each other about personal stuff, not work.”

He said Whole Foods officials told them about company policy and issued the suspensions.

Ben Friedland, Whole Foods Market Rocky Mountain Region Executive Marketing Coordinator, said the Austin, Texas-based company believes in “having a uniform form of communication” for a safe working environment.

“Therefore, our policy states that all English speaking Team Members must speak English to customers and other Team Members while on the clock,” Friedland said in a statement. “Team Members are free to speak any language they would like during their breaks, meal periods and before and after work.”

Friedland said the policy doesn’t prevent employees from speaking Spanish to customers who don’t speak English nor does it prevent them from speaking Spanish if all “parties present agree that a different language is their preferred form of communication.”

Whole Foods Market spokeswoman Libba Letton told the AP that in addition to safety reasons, the policy is in place so employees who don’t speak Spanish don’t feel uncomfortable.

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  • FreeX

    In New Mexico, it is not uncommon when calling a business to have to press 1 to continue in English and to not have to press anything to continue in Spanish.

    That “politics as lifestyle” is just marketing to a particular class of people who don’t give a damn if store employees can pay their bills, if they eat well or see a doctor. Can you image how business owners who shop at Whole Foods treat their employees. What those “enlightened” shoppers are after is exclusivity and a way to put their concern on display without having to sacrifice privilege; they will pay more, because Whole Foods doesn’t bother them with pesky concerns like living wage and equality. Whole Foods is a gated community.

    At the Whole Foods Santa Fe store a sign located in the checkout area lists their ethics. The number one ethic is profit: not to save the environment, not to only sell organic produce, not community. And when profit is the overriding concern, all other proclaimed ethics are sacrificial.

    If you live in New Mexico, do yourself, your community and the environment a favor and shop (as often as you can) at La Montanita Co-op (look them up). You don’t have to become member, but members receive a yearly dividend, (something you will never get from Whole Foods). Employees are paid a living wage, (with regular raises), enjoy a wellness program and 401(k) plan and unlike Whole Foods, all produce is organic and seasonal. And they don’t lie about their support for small farmers.

  • tasteless chap

    This history of the land isn’t in dispute.

    I’m not sure a suspension was in order, but I don’t disagree with the policy.

  • Medusa

    What the fuck indeed. They seem to be talking out of both sides of their mouths too. On the one hand, they can’t speak Spanish during work or to non-Spanish speaking coworkers (huh?) but on the other hand they are allowed to speak Spanish to customers during…. work.

    “Friedland said the policy doesn’t prevent employees from speaking Spanish to customers who don’t speak English nor does it prevent them from speaking Spanish if all ‘parties present agree that a different
    language is their preferred form of communication.'”

    So they can speak Spanish, if everyone in the conversation wants to speak Spanish? And they got suspended for speaking Spanish? What????????????????? And they can only speak Spanish to customers who don’t speak English? So they have to ask the customer to make sure they can’t speak any English before proceeding to help them int he language they feel more comfortable with? Yup, definitely a “what the fuck?” I think it’s more of a concern that it’s not a safe working environment for Spanish-speakers than the other way around.

  • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

    My guess: they’re afraid of people organizing. If your supervisor doesn’t understand you, he can’t bust you for talking about unions.

  • okaymango

    I can understand how it could make other employees feel left out or uncomfortable if their coworkers are speaking a different language around them, but what kind of sense does it make to suspend someone for speaking a different language? It’s not your right to understand everything another person says. Using that same logic, they should suspend people for whispering in each others ears.

  • Michelle

    Notice that employees “are free to speak any language…before and after work”. I can’t imagine how anyone thinks that is within the purview of Whole Foods.

  • Rob

    “Whole Foods, the grocery-store signifier of the “personal is political” and social responsibility”? Um… only if you’ve never heard anything out of the mouth of CEO John Mackey, who’s made the news a number of times for being a libertarian, comparing unions to herpes, calling Obama’s health care act fascism, etc, etc. Totally unsurprising.

    • racialicious

      Hi Rob–

      This is Andrea. Thanks for your response, and here’s my reply to your critique.

      Though the CEO Mackey holds such anti-progressive views, the store is touted as a socially responsible, e.g. being green, shopping alternative to other supermarkets that aren’t. From its products and even its decor, a shopper is enveloped in the idea that their money is helping to save the Earth. Essentially, what Whole Foods is selling is politics as lifestyle along with its organic tomatoes and earth-friendly Diva Cups.

      And quite a few people who have shopped there have complained that the prices are too high, which brings up the notion that saving the earth and healthy foods is the providence of those who can afford it, not a imperative that all humans need to do and have access to. So, that’s why I said that the store is a “grocery store signifier of the ‘personal is political’ and social responsibility”–it’s a class marker.

  • Kelsey Mahler

    I think what disturbs me the most about this is that they were not suspended for BREAKING the rule, but for QUESTIONING it. I can’t believe Whole Foods won’t even open up a dialogue about this issue. I thought they were better than that. #disappointed

  • brad davis

    Totally absurd. I’m an Austinite and big supporter of Whole Foods. This story is beyond disappointing. As Nikita said, let these folks have their culture!!!

  • Nikita

    I call BS. Let those folks have their culture. And YES, language is a big piece of a persons culture. Ask folks from the continent of African, African Americans, Italians, Native Americans, folks of Asian descent, Irish Americas, Muslim Americans etc. Get over thinking you must know everything that someone else is thinking or doing. Of course they are going to speak English to their English only co-workers about work issues! This is getting ridiculous. It is almost like forced assimilation even though they have assimilated enough to speak English, learn American culture etc. This fear of folks having something seperate from the masses and trying to control and define it is getting out of control. They are probably just afraid that one of the folks speaking Spanish is calling them the a-hole that they are acting like to their faces.