By Rene Thompson Editor-in-Chief | Photo by: Rene Thompson
Liberal Arts major Bryan Baldizan went to work at Whole Foods on Wyoming Boulevard the last Thursday of May—just like any other day—but he left feeling discriminated against when he was told he could no longer speak Spanish with store co-workers or customers of the store while he was on duty, he said.
After more than 15,000 people signed a petition on MoveOn. org and delivered it to the Whole Foods headquarters in Austin, Texas last week, Whole Foods’ policy is now being reevaluated and reworded to allow Spanish speaking in their stores, according to the press release provided by Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb.
Part-time Spanish instructor Emil Crawford said Spanish goes back to the sixteenth century here in New Mexico, and the first Europeans to enter the state were from Spain, there is a long history of Spanish in this state.
“Today, according to the most recent census almost half (46 percent) of New Mexico residents identify themselves as Hispanic with half (26 percent) being Spanish speakers, so I think this policy is essentially telling a whole segment of the community that they are not welcome, even though it’s supposedly only applicable to employees. You have to wonder why or how they would be able to speak to their Spanish-speaking customers, so it definitely left me under the impression of being suspect,” he said.
Baldizan said, “The whole situation first started with a team meeting we had, and in that team meeting our supervisor informed the whole team when she said, ‘Sorry guys, there is no more speaking Spanish on the clock.’ As soon as she said that she passed out a little paper giving us the English only rule, and when she showed us that, I was like there is no way this could be reality; this was just too ridiculous.”
There are actually quite a few people at his store who do speak Spanish, but they did not raise the issue as he had, Baldizan said.
“So after the initial meeting, one of the other employees who speaks Spanish who I work with stepped aside with management and a group of employees were there, and she asked what about the two Tibetan ladies that speak in their own language, and this is where we were giving her chance to explain and she said, ‘We’re not worried about them and we are only focused on Spanish speaking individuals,’” he said.
Baldizan said that he and his co-worker talked with everybody in upper management and that they were told the same thing by everyone: that it was corporate policy and all stores are given the same guidelines, so he decided to write a letter to explain his feelings on the situation.
“The response to that letter actually was that they pulled us up to the office; they did it one at a time and my coworker didn’t want to talk to them, so she told them, ‘Listen guys, anything you need to know is in that letter,’ so she comes back down and they bring me up, and I cooperated with them. I had a kind discussion with them and I told them what my grievances were, and they said they were going to conduct an investigation,” he said.
Baldizan said he had never been in trouble at his job before this incident and that he has always been a model employee there.
“I just raised an issue and I did it completely respectfully and calmly and so did my co-worker. I think she handled herself well under the circumstances,” he said.
Baldizan said they kept asking his co-worker to go speak with management again.
“She kept denying them and she asked them to stop harassing her and she said, ‘this needs to stop. I know my rights,’ and that’s when they suspended her,” he said.
Baldizan said he was in shock and he asked her if she was serious when she told him she was suspended because at this point he felt things were getting out of hand.“And all of sudden store leadership comes up to me and says we need to talk to you for a second, and I asked why they needed to talk to me and if they were going to suspend me next? They told me no one got suspended. I said to them, ‘I saw you guys do it to her just right there,’ and so they were like we need to have a private conversation with you, so that was when they suspended me too. There wasn’t any documentation or any reasons for the suspension and they didn’t have us sign anything,” he said.
The next day Baldizan says he got a call from the corporate office who explained that they wanted to offer him his job back and they scheduled another meeting the following day.
“So I went in and asked what their investigation found, and at this point is where they started to basically deny all claims, and I asked them if they were going to conduct an investigation into the side conversation that happened afterwards and they said no, which is huge because that was when she was targeting Spanish-speaking individuals even more so than with the original statement in the meeting. So I took a couple days to decide if I wanted to go back and work there, because it was really challenging for me,” he said.
Baldizan is still working for Whole Foods for now, but feels these policies need to be addressed.
“So I went back and I told them that I don’t accept their investigation and I gave them some specific reasons why, and the main one I brought up was before they conducted their investigation on the 17 employees, they suspended my co-worker and I in front of the whole team, and that’s kind of intimidation and fear, because they just saw two employees speak out and get suspended,” he said.
He said he was there every day after that voicing his opposition to it, to everybody that would listen.
Baldizan said he told management, “‘the way you guys are handling this is just wrong; for one there had been no open communication,’ and I had to go up to them telling them my side and concerns, and every time I did I would just get the same comments,” he said.
Baldizan has voiced his opinion of this incident with only two journalists so far and has already felt the backlash.
“After we came back to work they pulled my co-worker into the office and told her that this was her final warning, so I didn’t want to get her fired; she’s been there for 13 years. She’s a hard worker and she has a family she has to support, so I didn’t want to bring any more trouble for her,” he said.
The Latino community is large here and Spanish is protected by the New Mexico Constitution, so Baldizan thinks it is important that he stands up and fights for the right to speak Spanish here in New Mexico, he said.
“The way it affects us is that it really takes away from the value of this being such a diverse state. That’s big, because there are so many different cultures that are represented here in New Mexico,” he said.
Baldizan said he has had customers who have come up to him who did not know English, so he thinks it is really important to have people who can communicate in other languages, and being bilingual is usually an asset to most companies.
“But instead, we were treated like nuisances and actually criminals when they forcibly walked us out of the store after they had suspended us,” Baldizan said.
There was a lot of grief about how employees were speaking Spanish, he said.
“They told us that it made employees feel uncomfortable because they didn’t know what we were saying, and they thought we were talking bad about them. But in reality the conversations we had were just regular conversations, it was really just me asking how she was doing and what she was going to do that day, like friendly conversation you would have with co-workers, it was just in Spanish,” he said.
Baldizan said he got a lot of support from co-workers who disagree with what is happening and the way things were handled.
“Regardless of the situation, I think it’s great that people are out there voicing their opinion from across the nation and all walks of life, and there’s going to be people who agree with me and people who don’t agree with me,” he said.
Baldizan also wanted to set the record straight when it comes to his fellow co-workers urging people not to blame people who work for the company.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories about people bashing the employees who work there and that needs to stop because this isn’t their personal policies and this is not their fault. They’re there to work and make a living, so I think it’s important for people not to take their frustrations out on the employees because it’s not their fault that the company has ridiculous policies, and there are people fighting to change that,” he said.
Since all the news stories have surfaced, the backlash regarding Whole Foods has the company actually looking into their policy, but whether they are going to change it remains to be seen, he said.
“Either way though, I’m going to continue to have an active voice to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone after me, which was my main goal,” Baldizan said.
Store Team Leader Shelley Bertsch at the Carlisle Boulevard and Indian School Road location said that they have never heard of, nor have ever attempted to enforce this policy at her store location, explaining she is also a Spanish speaker.
Whole Foods Press Release Statement
Whole Foods Co-CEO Walter Robb just posted this statement titled “Our Revised Team Member Language Guidelines” on his blog, which includes the following:
First, we sincerely apologize that a section of our handbook regarding Team Member interactions in the workplace was not clearly written, and for any misunderstandings or offense it has created. Its intention was to foster inclusion, not exclusion. Second, our senior leadership team has reviewed and changed the wording of this section and will ensure that this new wording and, more importantly, the intention behind it is reviewed and discussed at the next Team Member meeting at every store and facility throughout the company, which will be within 45 days’ time.
Last week, we were contacted by LULAC-New Mexico, and we have sent them a copy of our original and revised language for their feedback. We were also contacted by the ACLU in New Mexico and are communicating with them. And, we have been contacted by ProgressNow New Mexico via MoveOn.org members who delivered a petition asking us to change our language guidelines. We will continue to have conversations with these organizations.