No Evil Foods, a vegan food company with a socially conscience message, laid off all of its production employees on Friday, more than a year after it presented them with an ultimatum to work through the pandemic or lose their jobs.
In a statement provided to Insider, the North Carolina-based company confirmed the layoffs and said it is moving away from in-house manufacturing to a co-packing manufacturer.
“Our goal is to be a significant force for good in the food system with environmentally sustainable, socially conscious, plant-based foods,” Mike Woliansky, co-founder and CEO, said. “For a company of our size to survive in the hyper-competitive marketplace, the co-manufacturing model will be required going forward.”
On March 19, 2020, the company presented its production workers with an ultimatum: keep showing up for work and receive a bonus for perfect attendance, or leave.
Those who chose to leave could either quit and receive no compensation but retain the option of returning in the future, or resign and receive severance, with no option to come back. Employees were given 24 hours to decide.
Employees told Insider at the time that the ultimatum seemed antithetical to No Evil Foods’ values and its stated mission statement: “To use food as a force for good.” No Evil Foods uses socialist-inspired branding, such as one fake meat product called “Comrade Cluck.” But the employees felt the company was placing economics over their safety.
Co-founder Sadrah Schadel told Insider at the time it was all the company could do given the circumstances.
“We wish we could do even more, but if we did, our family-operated company would end,” she told Insider. “There would be no jobs to return to for anyone.”
Whole Foods is planning layoffs as part of a larger restructuring of its business, the company confirmed to Insider on Thursday.
Whole Foods told Insider that it expects the layoffs to impact a small, but at this point unknown, number of corporate employees, and that employees who work at its stores and distribution centers will not be impacted.
In a press release, the Amazon-owned grocery chain said it’s planning changes involving its merchandising and operations, team member services, and technology teams in order to sustain its pandemic growth.
“These changes are designed to improve support for our stores and distribution centers as we remain committed to delivering an exceptional customer experience in stores and online,” Whole Foods said in the release.
The company said it plans to merge its global and regional merchandising teams, “realign” its team member services group, and shift its technology team “to focus more on skills required for software engineering and technical product and program manager roles.”
Whole Foods has seen explosive growth during the pandemic, with online grocery sales tripling during its second quarter of 2020 as the pandemic forced Americans to stay home.
Throughout the pandemic, Washington Post economics correspondent Heather Long has been providing indispensable context to the Department of Labor’s monthly unemployment announcements in thoughtful Twitter threads. As soon as lockdowns began last March, job losses skyrocketed to literally unprecedented levels, and Long’s analysis helped explain the reasons behind the numbers, what those tremendous job losses looked like for ordinary Americans, and why wealthy Americans weren’t suffering from the economic impact of COVID-19.
When the Labor Department announced on Friday, April 2 that the economy added some 916,000 jobs in March, Long rightly hailed that number as “the strongest gain in seven months” and a sign that “the economy [is picking] up steam.” In fact, job reports from January and February were revised up as well, indicating that the job market has been even stronger in 2021 than we initially realized.
Long leavened her enthusiasm by reminding us that “Overall the US has now gained back 13.7 million jobs – 62% – of the 22.2 million lost in the pandemic.”
That sounds like great news, but it’s simply not fast enough: We’d need another 13 months in a row of March’s gains to make up the job losses that the American economy incurred during the pandemic – and that’s not even taking into account all the jobs that would have been created over the last year had the pandemic never happened.
Even though low-wage jobs are coming back in record numbers as more Americans get vaccinated, the fact remains that if you were poor before the pandemic began, you’re much more likely to be unemployed right now.
The economy is divided along other lines, too: The Chicago Tribune reports that the unemployment rate for “Black Americans improved slightly last month, but at 9.6% is still higher than all other race groups tracked and the national average of 6%.”
Specifically, Goolsbee wanted to attack a long-standing trickle-down canard that the additional emergency unemployment benefits that the United States has paid out during the pandemic – to the tune of $600 per week at first, then $300 per week this year – would disincentivize low-wage workers from going back to work.
Pundits and politicians (including, perhaps most notably, West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin) argued that the economy would slow because while they were receiving large checks, low-wage workers wouldn’t see the need to return to work. But Goolsbee points out that in March, lower-wage jobs led the surge in employment numbers.
“Those are exactly the jobs that a group of people have been for almost a year saying we’re giving too much relief to – that their unemployment insurance is so high that no one will go back to work,” Goolsbee said. “And it’s just not true. Look at the data. It’s just not true. Those are the people going back to work in record numbers.”
Critics have “been saying that this would happen, literally, since we passed the CARES Act a year ago: ‘No one will go back to work if they are low enough income, because they will be paid more to not work than to work,'” Goolsbee added. “And multiple researchers went and showed that if you look at the generosity of unemployment, it’s not correlated with where jobs came back or didn’t come back.”
The argument against increased unemployment benefits “was nonsense and everyone should have understood it to be nonsense,” Goolsbee said. When Congress added $600 weekly payments to unemployment checks, “there were people who never made this much money in their life, who never made as much money working than they did on unemployment. And yet they’re going back to work,” he said.
The trickle-down myth
In other words, the pandemic has busted a trickle-down myth that has been spread by Democrats and Republicans alike since at least the 1990s – the pernicious argument that if a state or federal safety net is too generous, people will simply choose to stay at home and leech off the system.
This is the argument that politicians have invariably dragged out in order to make it harder and harder for people to file for unemployment, food stamps, and rental assistance. This kind of thinking contributed to crises at the beginning of the pandemic in states like Florida, where politicians had spent years decimating the very unemployment programs people needed to stay housed, fed, and safe during the pandemic.
The extended unemployment benefits, then, did exactly what they were supposed to do: They helped millions of Americans pay their bills when they were unable to find employment. They also helped those unemployed Americans spend money in their communities on groceries, supplies, and other necessities – and their continued consumer spending, in turn, likely saved millions of jobs and uncountable thousands of neighborhood businesses.
This is a momentous discovery which explodes a political truism that has gone unquestioned for decades, and it should factor into every conversation about the social safety net going forward. It’s yet another nail in the coffin of the popular trickle-down idea that the world is made up of industrious makers and lazy takers.
By getting money directly to the people who need it most, governments aren’t enabling a generation of moochers – they’re supercharging the economy by making sure people who are in temporary need of assistance are able to continue purchasing goods and services, thereby supporting and creating jobs.
These assistance programs aren’t charitable wastes of money, like critics argue – instead, they make good economic sense, improving the economy for everyone.
On his 20th anniversary of working at University of Tennessee Health Science Center, electrician Tony Patton was called in to a meeting.
That’s when he found out that he was one of 70 frontline facilities workers being laid off.
Patton had heard whispers about layoffs about a week before. Carpenter Michael Garrett said he had heard about potential layoffs the Monday before they came – but administrators said they were just rumors.
Then on March 12, workers were brought into a room and given letters that told them to turn in their keys, badges, and anything else pertaining to the university, as Laura Testino at the Memphis Commercial Appeal first reported. They were told that their positions were eliminated.
But Patton fought back with the help of his union, Communications Workers of America. The UTHSC’s union push is part of a broader trend towards revitalized labor organizing across the country. After decades of diminished union power increased income inequality, essential workers in hospitals and warehouses have been fighting for their safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The most important thing to me is making sure that my family and my home is taken care of,” Patton said. “And how could I do it if I don’t have employment and don’t have the money coming in that I need?”
Workers were told 17 new positions had been posted, which, according to the Commercial Appeal, could be applied for right away. Garrett, who had worked at the school for 20 years and hoped to work there until his retirement, said that 12 new positions with the same job description and duties as his were posted after his layoff.
For Patton, who worked as an electrician, the university didn’t list anything that would match his skills.
“When I went on there and looked, none of the positions say electrician,” Patton said. “So how am I getting my job back if y’all ain’t got no position for me?”
Local legislators are offering up their support
Now, the entire state legislative caucus for Memphis is sending a letter expressing concerns over the layoffs. They’re urging the school to reverse the layoffs and hire back the workers at their prior seniority and pay levels.
“These layoffs would devastate the workers they affect, costing whole families their income and health insurance. They are the workers who helped ensure UTHSC continued to function through the pandemic,” the legislators wrote. “They made possible the vaccine trials and other key functions of UTHSC to our community and have enabled the institution’s strong financial position and recent growth, which remains steady despite the pandemic.”
The University of Tennessee received more than $9 million in federal aid at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The US approved a $14 billion bailout for colleges and universities in March 2020 as they closed doors and scrambled to adapt to distanced learning. Yet many universities opened for in-person learning in the fall, when COVID-19 cases had begun to surge and vaccines had not been approved.
Following the disparate impact COVID-19 had on Black Americans and ongoing police killings of unarmed Black people, organizations like the University of Tennessee made a commitment to racial equality.
“We all need to join together to carry the torch of safety, dignity, respect, and human rights for everyone,” University of Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman said in a memo on May 30.
Daniel Dassow at The Daily Beacon reported that UCW president and lecturer Anne Langendorfer said that the layoff was “racist.”
“This is a predominantly Black workforce in a majority Black city and it’s currently the only group of workers targeted for a layoff,” Langendorfer reportedly said.
Right now, the future is uncertain
The workers who were laid off will be paid through June 31, and are currently still able to get their health insurance through the university, although Garrett isn’t sure when that will end. Patton said that his wife is on both his dental and medical insurance.
“You don’t know how you’re going to pay your bills. I just went and bought a new car,” Garrett said. He added: “I got a daughter who’s 19 going to college, and I don’t know how I’m going to pay my child support.”
Hannah Grabenstein at nonprofit newsroom MLK50 reported that UTHSC received almost a million dollars in CARES Act funding, with half of it earmarked for grants to students. Per a compliance letter from the school, all of that grant money had been doled out – along with an additional $99,039 from the rest of the school’s pot.
“I’m trying to get over it, but it’s hard to get over,” Patton said. “After 20 years you just up and let a person go.”