Whole Foods Splurged On Expensive Thermal Imaging Cameras, But Employees Question Their Effectiveness

Workers told HuffPost that they're not being trained on how to use the cameras and would prefer hazard pay instead.

Whole Foods locations across the country have spent thousands on expensive thermal imaging cameras, part of a nationwide rush on so-called “fever detectors” intended to screen out sick workers. But not all employees at the supermarket chain are happy about how the new gadgets work — and with how much they cost.

The cameras appeared last week and are being used to make sure employees don’t have one of the primary symptoms of COVID-19. But according to nine Whole Foods employees who spoke with HuffPost, some employees are operating the cameras without any official training. The workers requested anonymity for fear of retribution from the company, which is owned by Amazon.

In late April, Reuters reported that Whole Foods was using FLIR brand cameras, which two employees confirmed to HuffPost. On its website, FLIR recommends that anyone operating a camera receive a certification to do so — a training process that Whole Foods workers say isn’t happening.

“I received no instruction on how to use it,” an employee at a Whole Foods in Washington state said of the camera. He is responsible for checking the temperatures of workers coming in for the next shift and learned from a coworker how to turn on and aim the device.

A Whole Foods representative said that users didn’t need certifications in thermal imaging to operate the “user-friendly” devices and that it had collaborated with the manufacturers to develop “comprehensive” standard operating procedures for employees.

A Whole Foods employee in Maine told HuffPost that his coworkers have been learning how to use the cameras “on the go.” Employees at stores in Los Angeles; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and northern California had no knowledge of training happening in their stores either, though the stores have the cameras.

Whole Foods workers told HuffPost they think the money the company spent on the cameras should have been allocated to them directly — not to pricey equipment. FLIR cameras cost between $6,000 and $15,000 each, and an FLIR spokesman told HuffPost that “the higher the price of the camera, the better the resolution, better accuracy and the ability to use at a greater distance.”

During the pandemic, Whole Foods has been paying employees an additional $2 per hour and increased overtime pay — but both forms of higher compensation are set to expire May 17.

“They definitely do not provide enough hazard pay,” the employee in northern California told HuffPost. “$2 extra an hour does not cover a potentially lethal disease.”

“I don’t think it’s enough hazard pay really, especially considering there have been at least two confirmed cases at my store,” said the employee from the Chapel Hill store. “The camera doesn’t make me feel safe, it makes me feel like I’m under surveillance and it’s uncomfortable to me.”

A Whole Foods Market spokesperson said that while cameras have not arrived in all stores yet, “every location, including those that currently have thermal imagers, have handheld thermometers available.”

“The thermal imagers are both user friendly and have a working range that allows for social distancing,” the spokesperson said. “We also developed and provided stores with standard operating procedures and comprehensive guidance for use.”

In response to questions about some employees’ preference for more hazard pay and PPE, a Whole Foods spokesperson told HuffPost that the company has “been evaluating and evolving our safety measures in real-time” and that it maintains an “open door policy” and encourages “direct dialogue between Team Members and leadership in all of our stores.”

The spokesperson also did not say how many cameras the company purchased or how much it paid for them. They did note that the stores are using imagers from multiple manufacturers but that these are not in use at every location.

Thermal cameras work by measuring skin surface temperatures. According to the National Library of Medicine, the average temperature of a forehead is 34 degrees Celsius or 93 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Washington state employee indicated that management has instructed them not to let employees in with skin temperatures “greater than 100 degrees” based on the thermal camera — meaning an employee would have to test far over the 93-degree threshold in order to be sent home.

If an employee’s temperature reads over 100 Fahrenheit, they need to be fever-free for 72 hours to be able to report to work again, the employee said.

Whole Foods employees say they are not being penalized right now for calling in sick, though they aren’t paid for that time off. The company does offer paid time off to employees if they have a confirmed or presumed case of COVID-19 or are placed into quarantine.

According to FLIR’s website, “many factors” can affect the accuracy of thermal cameras — including “focus, distance, the emissivity of the target, the ambient environment, and the speed at which the temperatures are acquired.”

Distance is an important variable. FLIR recommends the cameras be used 1 to 2 meters away from the person they’re reading, or between about 3 and 6 feet. Of the employees HuffPost spoke to, six said that their stores use the cameras about 6 feet away from the people they’re reading, in order to adhere to social distancing protocols.

In a screenshot of a video obtained by HuffPost from the Washington state employee, the reading appeared to register the temperature of a person in front of it as 88.2 degrees Fahrenheit.

A FLIR thermal imaging camera being used in a Whole Foods store.
A FLIR thermal imaging camera being used in a Whole Foods store.
HuffPost US

FLIR’s Frequently Asked Questions page notes that its cameras cannot detect the coronavirus, but are used to identify elevated skin temperature so that people can “then be screened by medical professionals using additional tools such as an oral thermometer.”

Purvi Parikh, a pediatric allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health, told HuffPost that the cameras are “a good way to screen employees” when they arrive at work, “provided the company is using one of the more accurate brands” approved by the FDA — which FLIR’s cameras are.

However, “many COVID-19 patients do not develop a fever,” said Koushik Kasanagottu, an internal medicine resident at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

“This screening measure would miss a lot of asymptomatic carriers that could potentially spread the virus,” he said. “However, it certainly is promising and would help us identify individuals with a more pronounced expression of COVID-19 who develop a fever.”

While the cameras offer some sense of protection, they’re not foolproof. And since they’re only being used to screen employees, they also offer no protection from exposure to the customers that these essential workers encounter day after day.

An employee from a store in Commack, New York, told HuffPost via Twitter that the lack of testing for customers is concerning. Whole Foods has a new policy that asks customers to wear masks while shopping, and provides them at store entrances for customers who don’t bring their own.

But there’s no “enforcement of the social distancing/mask on in store at all times policy because there is no security in the store,” the employee wrote. “The customers BARELY follow the guidelines, and become rude and agitated often if they’re reminded.”

Whole Foods has been providing workers with masks, gloves and face shields as needed. Many workers said they felt their stores were providing them with enough personal protective equipment.

But a worker at a store in northern California said the company is providing employees with one mask a day, and the worker wished they could have more.

“If we can give customers a mask, we can give team members more than one mask a day,” the worker said.

A Whole Foods spokesperson said employees can request additional masks if needed. “Team Members are given a mask at the beginning of every shift and we have clear guidance to Team Members to dispose of their mask and ask for a replacement if their mask has become contaminated, saturated, or damaged at any point during their shift,” the spokesperson said.

The employee from Maine said the company gave employees T-shirts to thank them for working during a global health crisis. “I’d rather have a few more dollars,” the worker said. “I think a lot of it is how things look, ya know?”

The Washington state employee called the cameras “performative corporate bullshit” and said he’d prefer that the “money for that fucking camera was in my pocket,” particularly because, at least in his store, the camera isn’t being used all the time.

“In the exchange from swing shift to night shift, the camera was stored in an office upstairs and we used laser thermometers we’d been using,” he said. “The reason being that store leadership feels that this piece of equipment is too expensive to be left unattended when they are not present. Why do we have this fucking thing if we can’t use it for one-third of the time?”

The Whole Foods spokesperson said the daily temperature checks in stores and facilities are “an additional preventative measure to support the health and safety of our employees, who continue to provide a critical service in our communities.”

“None of this equipment has network connectivity, and no personal identifiable information will be visible, collected, or stored,” the spokesperson added.

Whole Foods employees have become essential workers during the global health crisis and have increasingly become more vocal about their working conditions.

Earlier this month, a coalition of workers at Whole Foods, Amazon, Instacart, Walmart, Target, Shipt and FedEx held a strike to demand hazard pay, better access to personal protective equipment on the job, and expanded leave policies so they can stay home with pay if they feel ill. Their demands have yet to be met.

Even though the Maine employee told HuffPost that the $2 per hour bump in pay they’ve received for working during the pandemic “doesn’t really balance with the number of people I closely interact with on the daily,” most of the workers HuffPost spoke to expressed concern that the bonus ends on May 17.

Whole Foods did not respond to HuffPost’s question about whether it would extend the bonus. Grocery chain Kroger has already informed its employees that their temporary pay bump of $2 per hour is ending on that same day.

“Why is hazard pay ending?” asked the worker at the Washington state Whole Foods. “Has the hazard ended? I don’t fucking think so.”

This article initially cited its unnamed source as saying the company policy was that employees need a negative COVID-19 test in order to return to work. After publication, the source said the policy, in fact, is that employees must be fever-free for 72 hours prior to returning to work. This article has also been updated throughout with additional information from Whole Foods.

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