Those of you who pay attention to spider news may already know that the nation's scariest specmien (personal opinion but also where is the lie) is expanding its dominion farther and farther north, as a result of the climate crisis. But thanks to its being sneaky enough to hitch an undetected ride on produce (much like a railroad drifter hopping into a moving boxcar), the black widow may also pop up in our local produce aisles. I mean, ideally not with any regularity, but it's allegedly happened before.
An ex-New Jersey Whole Foods employee, for example, contends he was bitten by a lurking black widow while laying out the fruits and vegetables in August 2017. Further, said employee—Richard Highsmith— maintains that the supermarket chain disregarded the extreme anxiety he experienced as a result of the attack, ignoring his requests to transfer departments and firing him when he couldn't return to produce.
According to a lawsuit Highsmith brought against Whole Foods, a black widow hiding inside a produce crate bit him on August 5th, 2017, while he worked at the company's Paramus, New Jersey store. Highsmith quickly went to the hospital, but still, the "black widow's venom was so potent that it progressed and caused temporary paralysis" to Highsmith's arm.
Black widows inhabit temperate environments worldwide, but in the United States, tend to cluster mostly in the South and West. Often larger than a paper clip when they fan out all their legs, black widows have murderous red hourglasses stamped on their jet-black abdomens. Their fangs pack venom that's reportedly 15 times stronger than a rattlesnake's, and while their bites usually aren't lethal to humans (provided they seek timely medical attention), they can induce nausea, cramping, and diaphragm paralysis that makes breathing hard.
These spooky goth spiders typically only strike humans when humans startle them, like by rooting around in their makeshift cabbage homes, and primarily eat insects. (Although, it bears noting, this spider does have a charming post-coital ritual that involves females killing and eating males.) Black widows will roll their quarry up in web strands, then pump these silky meat bundles full of digestive juices that, I shit you not, liquify the poor bug bodies for more convenient consumption.
So you can see where a person might be very freaked out about finding one of these arachnid assassins in such an unexpected place as their local Whole Foods. According to the lawsuit, Highsmith was out of work for roughly a month while his arm healed, a process that allegedly involved multiple hospital visits and hand therapy. He received worker's compensation and returned to work on September 12th, but "suffered debilitating anxiety and panic attacks just thinking about coming across another black widow spider" in the produce cooler. He asked his manager if he could take a later shift, and his manager said he could; according to the lawsuit, though, "he was unable to calm himself and was not physically able to report to work." He called out, and asked his manager if he could move to a different position, one that didn't involve returning to the scene of the crime.
When he didn't hear back, Highsmith says he put his request in an email, explaining his anxiety and asking for reasonable accommodations. He did not receive a reply to that message, but according to the lawsuit, did receive a termination notice about a week after sending it. Whole Foods reportedly cited job abandonment as its reason for firing him, but a spokesperson has not returned Gothamist's request for comment by time of publication.
Highsmith believes Whole Foods's handling of the situation to be tantamount to disability discrimination, and is asking the company pay him his owed wages, damages, and for his legal costs.
Unfortunately, Highsmith's Whole Foods encounter is not even unique: In 2012, a Connecticut woman found a black widow scrabbling around inside her bag of Whole Foods grapes. Whole paycheck for some venomous spider fruit?? Stop it! Just stop.