Safety and OSHA News

OSHA sues Whole Foods for firing worker who reported sewage leak

OSHA is suing Whole Foods Market Group to reinstate a fired employee with full back wages and benefits. The employee had expressed concerns to a supervisor about a sewage leak in the store. Three days later, the employee was fired.

The Whole Foods in Miami Beach, FL, experienced a sewage leak on Nov. 1, 2009. According to the Miami New Times, management tried to ignore the problem and covered the smell with air freshener.

The employee told New Times that brown, rank smelling water flooded the cheese aisle. After local management decided to just lock the bathroom doors and cover the problem with air spray, she reported the incident to corporate management.

Then she was fired. The company claimed she reported misleading information.

The employee went to OSHA and the agency investigated. OSHA says its investigation found Whole Foods violated the whistleblower protection provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act by unlawfully and intentionally terminating the employee.

OSHA is asking a federal court to issue an order that includes:

  • a permanent injunction against Whole Foods to prevent future violations of the whistleblower protections in the OSH Act
  • reinstatement of the former employee with full benefits
  • payment of back wages, punitive damages and compensatory damages to the employee, and
  • removal from the employee’s personnel file of all mentions regarding this case.

OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of the OSH Act and 20 other statutes protecting employees who report violations of various federal laws.

Whole Foods has responded to the accusations, saying it brought in a professional cleaning service to completely clean the sewage backup as soon as it was discovered, contrary to what the whistleblower had said.The entire area was closed for complete cleaning as soon as the problem was discovered. The company denies the employee was retaliated against.

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  1. What gets me is why Whole Foods didn’t want to repair this right away. She was int he right to report this because not only were the employees in harms way, the general public was. Now I’m wondering if they pulled that cheese from the shelf that got exposed to the sewage stench or just sold it to the public. It’s like having food in your bathroom, you wouldn’t do that.

  2. If you believe the company’s side of the story, you could reach the conclusion that the employee may have wanted to get local management in trouble with corporate over nothing.

    According to the link provided on Whole Foods Response:

    “Hi, Libba from Whole Foods Market here. We deny these accusations. The EEOC investigated and dismissed these allegations earlier this year, finding no probable cause for wrongful termination. While we cannot discuss the former Team Member’s employment with us, we deny that she was retaliated against. It is important to note that she was not the first or only person to report the problem.
    Here are the facts regarding the plumbing issue: that area of Miami Beach has problems with pipes backing up during high tide when there’s been significant rainfall. The backup in our store equated to about an inch of water that encompassed about a three-foot span over one of the drains. The entire area was closed for complete cleaning as soon as the problem was discovered, and was cleaned and sanitized again the next day by a professional cleaning service. When it happened again the same professional cleaners were back at the store in less than 24 hours and the entire area was sanitized again.

    At all times, the areas of the store open to customers were clean and safe.”

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