Whole Foods agrees to pay $300,000 to record warehouse workers’ voices

  • Whole Foods will pay out nearly $300,000 in a lawsuit over voice technology.
  • Workers at an Illinois warehouse had to record their voices into a system that controlled their work.
  • But the employees said Whole Foods ran afoul of a biometric data law when they made the recordings.

Whole Foods has agreed to pay nearly $300,000 to settle a lawsuit over a system that requires warehouse workers to speak into a computer system that records their voices. The grocery chain uses the system to create and track work assignments, but workers complained that it captured their “voiceprints” without their consent, in violation of an Illinois privacy law.

The Amazon-owned grocer would pay $297,000 to current and former employees who worked in a Whole Foods warehouse in Chicago and used headsets to record their voices and complete tasks, Bloomberg Law first reported Thursday.

The class action lawsuit received preliminary approval from a circuit court in Cook County, Illinois, Law360 reported. Affected workers will receive payments of approximately $545 each, according to the publication. Whole Foods declined to comment to Insider about the case or the settlement.

At Whole Foods warehouses, employees are given a headset that they use while at work. The employees use these headsets to talk to a computer, tell it when they have completed tasks and listen for directions. The headsets are a replacement for screen-based systems and “free up employees’ hands and eyes with voice-controlled workflows,” according to the website of Honeywell, the company that manufactured the headsets that Whole Foods warehouses use.

Whole Foods uses the system at its warehouses because “it increases the overall efficiency of distribution and fulfillment centers by identifying the individual’s voice patterns when issuing commands,” the workers argued, according to the original complaint in the lawsuit.

The system captures biometric information, say the plaintiffs

At the Chicago warehouse, employees had to submit recordings of their voices before they started using the system so it could understand them, according to the complaint. But those recordings, called “voice prints” in the lawsuit, are biometric data, similar to a person’s fingerprints, the plaintiffs said.

Whole Foods had to provide warehouse workers with information about how their voice prints would be stored and processed under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, or BIPA. But the workers “were never initially asked for consent, nor were they ever given a written policy regarding the use of their biometric identifiers as required under BIPA,” the complaint said.

“Furthermore, they were never told if their voice prints would be deleted from the defendant’s systems or when they would be deleted,” according to the complaint.

Other companies, including Walmart and PetSmart, are also facing lawsuits over their use of voice command technology at facilities in Illinois.

Using biometric data is just one way some employers, including many retail businesses, can track and guide worker productivity. Amazon’s warehouse workers have been tracked by the amount of time they spend doing things other than work, such as going to the bathroom. At Amazon, it is known as “leisure duty” and was referred to by unionized workers at Amazon warehouses in 2022.

Do you work in a warehouse operated by Whole Foods or another retailer and use voice technology to do your job? Contact Alex Bitter at [email protected] or via the encrypted messaging app Signal at (808) 854-4501.

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