On the afternoon of November 1, Whole Foods workers in Miami Beach noticed an unsettling odor. There was no mistaking it, says a marketing specialist who asked to remain anonymous: "It was the smell of poop and pee."
The employee, who we'll call Janet, did some investigating and found a sewage line had busted. Brown water — along with chunks of toilet paper — leaked onto the floor of the cheese and prepared foods sections. It flooded drains outside near the entrance, where customers sat at café-style tables and munched organic food. The whole thing was a big food-handling no-no.
But instead of closing the store and fixing the problem, the manager locked the bathrooms and let the mess sit for a week, according to a federal safety complaint filed by Janet. "They used these horrible air fresheners to cover it up," she says. "Nobody would eat out front."
Jason Robinson worked at the shop for about two years and quit, in part, because of the stink over the conditions. "It was rank," he says of the odor. "You could smell it when you walked in."
After several days, workers began getting headaches from the stench. Some were fed up with having to run to Starbucks to use the restroom and with tiptoeing through dirty water. Says three-year employee Florence Maxi: "I was disgusted by the situation... They would just tell us to go back to work."
Frustrated, Janet snapped photos of the mess and sent them to Whole Foods regional offices along with a complaint. A few days later, executive marketing coordinator Russ Benblatt arrived at the store and fired her. His reason: She had reported "misleading" information.
Benblatt contends, "There was no sewage spill, but a sewer line collapse that caused a backup in two areas." Those parts of the store were shut down and cleaned by a professional crew. Whole Foods "take[s] the health and safety of [its] team members and customers very seriously." Her firing wasn't retaliatory, he says.
On Riptide's trip to the shop last week, a powerful lemony fragrance wafted from behind the cheese counter. Janet, who worked at Whole Foods three years, has since filed two complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. She argues, "It's wrong that I lost my job for speaking the truth."