This article is about Whole Foods, and its decision to stop offering health insurance to 1,900 part-time workers as of January 1.

But first, a public service message: If you know any parents who adopt a child but who run into trouble adding the child to their health insurance, tell them there's a federal law they need to learn quickly, 29 U.S. Code § 1169(c)(1), which was part of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993. 

I learned about this law a few years ago, when my wife and I adopted our daughter, and our health benefits administrator simply refused to add her to our policy. It was a rough ordeal--hours and hours on the phone, running up medical bills in the meantime, and being distracted during time I wanted to spend with my family. 

Ultimately, we won, after I wrote some stern letters and threatened a lawsuit. The company even apologized and promised to change how they train their employees. I'm talking about it now for other parents' benefit, of course, but also because it's probably my biggest health insurance nightmare story.

Many of us have one. And that shared experience is why the Whole Foods decision could come back to haunt it.   

Today versus last month

Whole Foods' decision was first reported by Business Insider last week. Compare the company's recruitment website today to an archived version from August:

  • Today: "We provide all full-time Team Members with access to health insurance to keep you feeling great."
  • Last month: "Whether you're salaried or working 20 hours a week in-store, we provide you access to health insurance to keep you feeling great."

Why do it? One report says the move will likely save Whole Foods $19 million a year. That happens to be roughly what Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos reportedly makes in a little under five hours.

Actually, the savings might be less, because Whole Foods told me in an emailed statement it expects some affected workers to shift to full-time:

"Impacted Team Members in good standing have the opportunity to move into one of the thousands of full-time roles, where they will be eligible for the same Whole Foods Market health care plan at a more affordable rate.

"The majority of Team Members only need to work an additional five hours per week to qualify for health care-eligible positions." 

But picking up more hours means paying for childcare for some employees. One Whole Foods worker quoted by Business Insider said she was "in shock" after learning the news, adding: "I've worked here 15 years. This is why I keep the job--because of my benefits."

Culture and perception

This might make some kind of sense as a financial decision. But as a culture and perception issue, it seems crazy.

Whole Foods has a great reputation for customer service. That's part of why it was worth $13.7 billion when Amazon acquired it in 2017. The way they've treated their employees historically was part of what made it all work.

I've shopped there forever, and the employees are a big reason why. But as we've seen so often--heck, I even talked about it yesterday--the hardest thing to build in any organization is culture. A close second might be the perception of culture.

Start chipping away at the pieces for short-term gain, and it can fall apart quickly. 

Target du jour

Health care and how we pay for it is one of the most relevant, relatable, and volatile political issues in this country today.

It's about why medical debt is the No. 1 cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States. It's about why people stick with jobs they hate. 

Besides, can you think of a company with a clientele more urban and liberal than Whole Foods?

Heck, Whole Foods just managed to become the target du jour of politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This decision could totally alienate some of its most loyal customers.

So, from the outside: If you truly need to cut costs, Whole Foods, I'd look somewhere else. 

But as a silver lining, thanks for the opportunity to talk about 29 U.S. Code § 1169(c)(1).

We all have our stories. I've been waiting for the chance to tell that one.

Published on: Sep 19, 2019
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