Ken Scales lost his part-time job stocking shelves when Whole Foods Market closed its Brookline store last month. At age 72, Scales said he still needed to work to pay the bills, so he moved to a similar position at another Whole Foods store a few miles away.
But then some friends suggested he had made a mistake. They told him he should have left his position at Whole Foods and taken the $11,000 in severance pay that he was owed after almost 10 years on the job, Scales said.
Stocking shelves pays about $20 an hour. At that rate of pay, the severance package he had been offered was the equivalent of about six months of pay. For the first time in his adult life, Scales could have enjoyed an extended period of time off without losing income.
Plus, because of the high demand for low-wage workers in today’s economy, Scales could have easily found another job for similar pay whenever he wanted, his friends said.
Persuaded he had made a mistake, Scales asked Whole Foods to let him leave his job and take the severance. At that point, Whole Foods had not yet formally eliminated Scales’ Brookline position.
But Whole Foods, owned by Amazon, one of the world’s richest corporations, said no. By accepting a part-time job at another store, Scales had forfeited his right to leave the company with severance pay. The store treated his choice as irrevocable, he said.
Scales said he has been a good, reliable worker. His manager at the Brookline store thought highly enough of him to recommend him to the Whole Foods Market Symphony store in the Fenway, where he wound up.
“I was counting on that severance payment to help me regroup, pay down some bills, and to decide what I want to do next,” he wrote in an appeal for reconsideration to Whole Foods.
If Scales had known about a semantic distinction in his employment status he might have avoided what for him feels like a major life crisis, one that has reduced him to tears more than once. When Scales accepted the job in the Fenway, unbeknownst to him, he was classified by Whole Foods as a permanent employee.
But he could have requested to be classified as a temporary employee. That would have kept open the option of him leaving the company and taking severance pay on June 28, the day his position at the Brookline store was set to be formally terminated. But Scales knew nothing of the distinction, and nobody from Whole Foods explained it to him.
“I ask that you please reconsider,” he wrote to the company on June 8.
When Scales didn’t get a reply to his e-mail, which he had sent to five managers, he asked one of them what was going on.
“It is my understanding that the team has received your message and [it] has been escalated for further review,” one of the managers wrote back to him. Two weeks later, he had yet to receive a follow-up, but Whole Foods confirmed to me the matter is under review and that it will communicate directly with Scales.
Scales said he told his story face-to-face to his manager at the Fenway store. “Let me see what I can do,” the manager said. Scales said he was called into the manager’s office 30 minutes later. “There’s nothing I can do,” the manager said, according to Scales.
By the time Scales changed his mind about taking severance, only a couple of weeks had passed since the Brookline store closed. And Whole Foods required anyone from that store who wanted severance to continue to work for the company, at a different location, through June 28, its “Position Elimination Date.”
So, by continuing to work at the Fenway store, Scales was doing what the company required. He was just doing it under the wrong job classification to qualify for severance.
Maybe Whole Foods is denying his request for severance because it wants to keep a good employee. Maybe it considers it paramount to strictly adhere to its established protocols. But it would seem a bit draconian for Whole Foods to deny a 72-year-old a few thousand dollars. (Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is worth more than $100 billion)
After I furnished Whole Foods with a detailed account of what Scales told me, it responded with a statement: “We have worked closely with our Brookline Team Members to support them during this transition, including encouraging all interested Team Members to remain employed with Whole Foods Market by seeking permanent positions at our other locations. In the event that a Team Member did not want to stay with the company or did not accept a new role prior to their position elimination date, we provided support by way of severance. These options were communicated multiple times, including in writing to each individual Team Member.”
Scales did nothing underhanded or conniving. He liked his job and apparently did it well. But, in his determination to keep working, he failed to appreciate his own best economic interest.
Scales has worked all his life, mostly in unglamorous positions at retail stores. He gets a modest monthly Social Security check and lives in a tiny apartment in Chinatown. He’s not asking for much.
It would be nice if Whole Foods could see its way to giving this guy a break. It’s not too late.
One note: Scales is close friends with an editor at the Globe (they perform music together). Several weeks ago, Scales contacted the editor and explained what had happened. The editor was one of the people who said he was crazy not to take the severance pay and urged him to seek reconsideration.
But I was not influenced by the editor to take up Scales’ cause. I did so because I thought it was a compelling example of a big corporation taking a cold and unyielding position with a longtime and loyal employee making $20 an hour stocking shelves.
Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.