Clean Up on Aisle Five

Santa Fe Reporter | August 3, 2005
Attention Whole Foods shoppers, be sure to check out our great specials on organic leeks today in the produce department. And if you think our salad bar supervisor looks suspicious, feel free to use the Homeland Security courtesy phone at our customer service counter.

Don’t laugh. Potential terrorists are everywhere.

SFR has learned that, as a result of this brave new world of national security, a dozen or so undocumented employees at the Whole Foods on Cerrillos Road will lose their jobs by Aug. 6.

“This wasn’t a Whole Foods decision,” Marc Malin, an associate store team leader at the store, says. “This is the result of a Homeland Security initiative. We as a company certainly don’t want to do this. They’re good workers and we hate to see them go, but we basically have no choice.”

The Social Security Administration—under increased pressure to scrutinize the American workforce—conducted an audit of the Whole Foods payroll about two months ago, cross-checking Social Security numbers and names of the grocery chain’s employees. Incongruous matches were red-flagged and Whole Foods was given 60 days to either verify the legal status of targeted workers or show them the door.

“The [SSA] has really refined their search capabilities,” says store manager Tim Lenihan. “My number gets run—everyone’s number gets run—and we have to correct any inconsistencies. If someone can’t validate their information, we have to ask them to leave. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a normal course of business.”

Malin says initially as many as 45 of the more than 300 people employed at the Cerrillos store were singled out by the SSA search, though Lenihan says 10 to 15 workers will be out of work by Aug. 6. Most of the departing employees are “back-of-the-house” team members like dishwashers and maintenance workers, casualties of an “you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us” era. “In the atmosphere that there is now, there isn’t room to maneuver like there was before,” Malin says. “That’s the nicest way I can say it. In this whole process of tightening borders, if you don’t have a valid Social Security number, you’re not valid to work in this country.”

Conspiracy theorists may speculate that Whole Foods was singled out for its liberal environs. The shelves are filled with organic products, recycled paper towels and a check-out line magazine rack that shies away from US Weekly, People and the National Inquirer in favor of Utne Reader, Yoga Journal and Condé Nast Traveler. But the store’s management says the heightened scrutiny is merely a product of the store’s success.

“They aren’t going to target mom-and-pop stores,” Malin says. “They’re going to go for companies with high visibility and, as we continue to grow, we are in the spotlight.”

To deflect that glare, Whole Foods began implementing its own rigorous system of evaluating applicants in 2001, which has since been expanded to include background checks of veteran employees like those who have been working at the Santa Fe location since it opened in December 1999.

“We’re working to make sure that all of our team members are legally allowed to work in this country,” Whole Foods Spokesman Scott Simons says. “The impetus was basically to follow the law. As we grow, we’re looking to improve our internal checks and balances. We need to cross-check all our employees to make sure we’re on the up and up.”

Lenihan declined to talk specifically about the employees that will be let go—citing privacy concerns. “I think it would be in their best interest not to draw attention to themselves,” Lenihan says. “I’d hate for this to blow up in their faces.”

The departure of the undocumented employees has taken some coworkers by surprise.

“These aren’t terrorists,” Stan Rosenzweig, an employee in the store’s prepared foods department, says. “These are good people that are being affected. People who come to work every day and do a good job. It’s just bizarre.”

It’s also part and parcel of operating a business in the United States, circa 2005. But it isn’t simply the loss of manpower—and the subsequent scramble to hire and train replacements—that is affecting many of the remaining workers at the Whole Foods in Santa Fe.

“It’s certainly had an effect on morale,” Malin says. “We like to think of ourselves as a family and many of us are very close to the people we work with. We’ve lost a lot of good people because of this.”

Santa Fe Reporter

When it was founded in 1974, the Santa Fe Reporter's mission was to create lively competition for a stodgy and timid daily press. That tradition continues today. The Reporter investigates beneath the surface, presenting in-depth stories often overlooked or uninvestigated...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 132 E. Marcy St., Santa Fe, NM 87501
  • Phone: (505) 988-5541