Whole Foods must pay $300,000 over accusations that a system meant to track productivity captured warehouse workers' voices without their consent

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Whole Foods must pay $300,000 over accusations that a system meant to track productivity captured warehouse workers' voices without their consent
Employees at a Whole Foods warehouse in Chicago would get payments of over $500 under a lawsuit settlement related to a work management system that recorded their voices.Mary Meisenzahl/Insider
  • Whole Foods will pay out almost $300,000 in a lawsuit settlement over voice technology.
  • Workers at an Illinois warehouse had to record their voices in a system that directed their work.
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Whole Foods has agreed to pay nearly $300,000 to settle a lawsuit over a system that requires warehouse employees to speak into a computer system that records their voices. The grocery chain uses the system to make 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 on Thursday.

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

At Whole Foods warehouses, employees are given a headset that they wear while at work. The employees use these headsets to talk to a computer, telling it when they have completed tasks and listening for directions. The headsets are a substitute for screen-based systems and "free up employees' hands and eyes with voice-guided workflows," according to the website of Honeywell, the company that manufactured the headsets that the Whole Foods warehouses use.

Whole Foods uses the system at its warehouses because "it increases the overall efficiency at distribution and fulfillment centers by identifying the individual's voice patterns as they give commands," the workers argued, according to the original complaint in the lawsuit.

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System is capturing biometric information, plaintiffs say

At the Chicago warehouse, employees had to submit recordings of their voices before they started using the system so that it could understand them, per the complaint. But those recordings, which are called "voiceprints" in the lawsuit, are biometric data, similar to a person's fingerprints, the plaintiffs said.

Whole Foods had to provide workers at the warehouse with information on how their voiceprints would be kept and treated under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, or BIPA. But the workers "were never first asked for their consent, nor were they ever provided with a written policy regarding the use of their biometric identifiers as required under BIPA," the complaint reads.

"Moreover, they were never told whether their voiceprints 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 that some employers, including many retail companies, track and guide workers' productivity. Amazon warehouse workers have been tracked by the amount of time they spend doing things other than working, such as going to the bathroom. At Amazon, that's known as "time off task" and was referenced by workers in union drives at Amazon warehouses in 2022.

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Do you work in a warehouse operated by Whole Foods or another retailer and use voice technology to do your job? Reach out to Alex Bitter at abitter@insider.com or via the encrypted messaging app Signal at (808) 854-4501.

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