Demonstrators delivered more than 60,000 petitions to the Whole Foods corporate offices in Chicago and Austin, Texas Friday to demand that the company reinstate their recently-terminated employee Rhiannon Borschat.
Borschat was fired from her job at the Whole Foods store in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, located at 3460 N. Halsted St., in January after calling off work to care for her special needs child. Borschat had no other option but to stay home with her son because the Chicago Public Schools canceled classes that day due to extreme cold temperatures.
Last week, dozens of demonstrators picketed both the regional headquarters in Chicago and the Lakeview location to demand that she be reinstated. Since last week's action, tens of thousands of people have signed on to a petition in support of Borschat.
The former Whole Foods worker was joined by some of her coworkers along with members of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) and other supporters Friday. They were quickly denied access to the elevators in the building that houses Whole Foods' regional headquarters by security. After a short wait in the lobby, Keith Stewart, executive marketing coordinator for Whole Foods in Chicago, came down to accept the signed petitions and then promptly returned to the company's offices.
According to Trish Kahle, a Whole Foods employee who came to the protest in support of Borschat, Friday's reception by company officials was treated differently than previous attempts made by workers who have come to the regional offices to air a grievance. Kahle said she and another employee, Matthew Camp, delivered petitions regarding the company's attendance policy last June and were allowed entry to the floor where the company's regional offices are located. Employees like Kahle and Camp have been demanding the company change its policy, which is a “points system” that tabulates different types of violations like unexcused absenses and lateness. Employees are terminated after six violations in a six-month period of time. According to the policy, workers can have up to five unexcused absences in a six-month period before being fired. Shortly before Borschat's termination, the company updated the policy to excuse an absence due to inclement weather.
“Rhi is emblamatic of what happened,” said Kahle. “A lot of people get fired over this policy. When that many people are getting fired, the problem isn't with the workers, the problem is with the policy.” Khale said being denied the opportunity to deliver the petitions to the office was a “clear violation” of the company's open door policy. “If they say they have open doors for team members, that extends to whether or not we come in pairs or as singles.”
Outside, a smiling Borschat said she appreciated the support she's received.
“It's completely overwhelming joy just to see complete strangers supporting and wanting to get in the cause,” she said shortly after having dropped off the petitions with Kahle.
“Everybody is going through their own issues and these companies really have to take this into consideration,” Borschat added.
She said Whole Foods has not made an attempt to contact her, but expressed hope that the company would respond.
“Hopefully, it gets to the right person like the guy (Stewart) said and they take into consideration that what they did wasn't the best decision,” Borschat continued.
Her supporters say they will continue to fight on Borschat's behalf. Nancy Selgado, a McDonald's employee of 11 years and single mother of two children told the group: “This is not a fight where we're alone. We're going to fight until she gets her job back because she's a mother and her son needs that. As a mother, I understand her too. We're in the fight together.”
Khale said that both customers and coworkers have been very supportive of Borschat's situation.
“Our coworkers have been so supportive and the company has consistently tried to deny how much solidarity there is with Rhi, but she was very well liked in the store,” Khale said. “People know that this could happen to them and that what happened to her was unfair.”
When asked if she would take her job back if the company offered, Borschat said she definitely would.
“I wouldn't sit here and let all these people fight for nothing,” she added. “I like working at Whole Foods, I got along with my coworkers, they got along with me. I never got into any issues with management. My only issue was the attendance policy. It wasn't like I was abusing it. People come on tough times. I strongly believe if you have proof as to why you're not going to work, that should be good enough.”
* Aricka Flowers contributed to this story.