On April 6, a Trader Joe’s employee with underlying health conditions died from COVID-19, prompting a temporary closure of the worker’s store in Scarsdale, New York, to give other employees “time to process and grieve.” It marked the first known novel coronavirus death for Trader Joe’s, and one of several recent coronavirus-related grocery worker deaths, as cashiers, stockers, and other essential workers on the front lines face increased exposure to the highly contagious virus — often without adequate personal protective equipment, paid sick leave, or hazard pay.
The dearth of such protections or compensation has emerged as a critical sticking point around which some essential workers are seeking to organize — including Trader Joe’s employees. In late March, a coalition of Trader Joe’s workers called for a boycott of the grocery chain, citing multiple reports of employees testing positive for COVID-19, with store managers allegedly “keeping stores open despite [a] sick crew.”
“For your own safety, the only ethical and actionable solution is to stop shopping there and tell any high risk friends and family you know to do the same,” the coalition tweeted.
For fans of the cult-favorite grocer, the current furor surrounding Trader Joe’s and its workers may be surprising. After all, the company — which has grown from a California neighborhood store into a 500-location chain owned by the Albrechts, the family of German grocery moguls that also owns the supermarket chain Aldi — has always prided itself on being a cut above other supermarkets, with high-quality products and friendly customer service that appeal to shoppers, a business model that is studied in MBA programs, and a reputation for being a good place to work, with above-average compensation, medical, dental, vision, and retirement plans, and annual salary increases, per the Associated Press.
But as Kim Kelly wrote for the Daily Beast, “[b]ehind all the cheery decor and novelty baked goods, the workers who keep the shelves stocked and cash registers ringing are suffering.” In recent weeks, BuzzFeed News, the New York Times, and Bloomberg Businessweek have documented the experiences of Trader Joe’s workers at this singular point in time, when the grocery chain is caught in a unionization effort and a public-health crisis. The coalition behind the Trader Joe’s union — which only went public on March 1 — quickly found itself fighting for immediate coronavirus protections for employees. The pandemic only served to highlight what the coalition has been saying: employers like Trader Joe’s needs to do more for its workers.
The current wave of unionization efforts is not the first in recent Trader Joe’s history. In 2016, an employee in New York City filed an unfair labor practices charge against the grocer after he was reprimanded for displaying an insufficiently “genuine” smile and attitude, and subsequently fired for “what the managers described as an overly negative attitude,” the Times reported at the time. Unionization discussions have bubbled up among employees since then, and were reignited last year after a transgender employee initially wasn’t allowed to wear a pin showing their preferred pronouns, according to the Times.
One former Pennsylvania Trader Joe’s employee — who was recently let go for “job abandonment” after not working any shifts for more than 21 days, due to concerns about the virus — told Eater that there has been chatter about unionizing in a group chat with her coworkers. Pre-coronavirus, she said, the complaints had mostly been about a lack of hours, which prevented employees from getting full-time benefits they needed, such as health insurance. She also expressed frustration over a repeated lack of transparent communication from management, inconsistent policies across stores, and the “red flag” of management’s reluctance to let workers form their own private group chats. The only reason their group chat was allowed, she said, was that a coworker had pitched it as an easier way to trade shifts. Management finally allowed the creation of the group chat, but on the condition that they wouldn’t use it to talk about unions.
Former Trader Joe’s employee Kris King told the Times that he was fired in part because he started a Facebook group for his fellow employees to discuss how the company was handling the pandemic. “We don’t operate by letting crew talk amongst themselves,” a manager allegedly told King before he let go. Trader Joe’s spokesperson Kenya Friend-Daniel did not dispute the details of the firing to the Times, but wrote in an email to Eater: “I can tell you we did not end his employment due to a desire to unionize, set up a social media page or express concerns, nor would we do so with any other Crew Member.”
Friend-Daniel also reiterated in a statement to Eater that employees are allowed to communicate with each other on social channels. “We know our Crew Members use a variety of ways to communicate with one another, including dedicated and closed Facebook pages,” Friend-Daniel wrote in an email. “We understand people want places to talk, and they are certainly welcome to do so.”
As the gravity of the coronavirus outbreak finally seemed to take hold among the American public in mid-March — between the World Health Organization’s official declaration of a pandemic, what seemed like an explosion in reported cases, and cities and states imposing ever-stricter measures to keep people at home — grocery stores became increasingly fraught lifelines. With restaurants largely closed save for takeout or delivery, it seemed like virtually the entire country was streaming into grocery stores for essential goods to stockpile at home. There were multiple reports of bare shelves and lines out the door at Trader Joe’s locations.
The company, to its credit, was early to give employees additional paid sick time, announcing in early March a policy to allow employees who have coronavirus symptoms or who feel ill to stay at home and get reimbursed for up to a week off. But, as some authorities have been sluggish to realize, such a policy ignores the reality of dealing with asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus, who can still transmit the virus to unwitting coworkers who may then fall ill. Furthermore, a worker pointed out to Business Insider, there were concerns that the reimbursement was up to individual managers’ discretion, as well as over the lack of health insurance for ineligible employees.
“It is not enough to receive [paid time off] only after being proven sick,” the workers behind unionization efforts tweeted in mid-March, as they launched a petition (which eventually collected more than 20,000 signatures) demanding hazard pay at a rate of time and a half, plus guaranteed wages in the event of a forced store closure. “Trader Joe’s proudly employs elderly and disabled workers, two demographics that are most at risk for becoming critically ill for COVID-19. Yet those workers can’t afford to avoid work and keep themselves safe,” the coalition’s Coworker page read. “Hazard pay and guaranteed closure pay provides security, comfort, and increased morale knowing our company has our backs.”
Within days of the petition launch, Trader Joe’s sent an internal memo announcing plans to pay bonuses to store employees based on recent sales increases. Workers interviewed by the Times and Businessweek allege that the bonuses amount to only $200 to $300, or the equivalent of about an extra $2 an hour. Employees told Businessweek that some stores were breaking records and doing double or nearly triple their usual sales volume. “The bonus is a slap in the face,” one worker said. In a statement to Eater, Kenya-Daniel wrote that sales are now down in comparison, and that all store crew members have received a pay increase of $2 an hour. Currently, she wrote, “there is no end date to the increase.”
Employees have also expressed fears over what they see as a lack of protective measures or regard for safety from the company. Multiple outlets reported that last month, some workers were told by their managers not to wear gloves or face masks to avoid alarming customers. “When we ring people up, we shouldn’t be wearing gloves, because that makes people feel uncomfortable,” the former employee in Pennsylvania told Eater. “However, Crew Members feel unsafe that they are not allowed to wear any form of protection,” she wrote in a subsequent email.
“It is necessary to eliminate all lingering questions or confusion and set the record straight,” a company official wrote in an email to employees in March, according to the Times. “Trader Joe’s official policy on gloves is that we don’t have a policy. We never have.” The confusion is when individual stores have different protocols that are up to managers’ discretion, as has historically been the default for the company; an employee handbook reviewed by Eater states that it is “store management that truly makes all major store operational decisions. At Trader Joe’s the Captain really does run the ship!” Individual store flexibility may be a boon in the best of times, but can quickly turn to chaos during a national — or global — crisis.
Workers also alleged that their stores have been slow to close even after coworkers tested positive for COVID-19. In what is yet again an illustration of the problems with having different protocols for different locations, some stores’ employees told BuzzFeed News that their workplaces remained open with employees expected to come in as normal — without professional cleaning — after a diagnosis, while other stores closed for cleaning soon after a worker tested positive. For the stores that took longer to close or didn’t close at all, there would have been ample time for viral transmission, workers feared.
Throughout the pandemic, as the Trader Joe’s Union Coalition has ramped up its activity to demand more proactive protections, attempts at union busting have also allegedly intensified. The Times reports that at the end of March, store managers gave anti-union talks to staff, and a regional manager visited multiple locations to tell workers that the hazard pay petition was actually a petition to join the union. In a statement to the Times, Friend-Daniel said: “Because a union has chosen to inject itself into the lives of our crew members during this time of crisis, we have no alternative but to remind and share with our crew members the facts.”
In a March 31 letter sent from CEO Dan Bane to all employees, he calls the unionization efforts “a distraction,” writing that “I am convinced that any Crew Member who critically considers the question will conclude that being a Crew Member at Trader Joe’s beats being a ‘member’ of a union” (neglecting to acknowledge that one can be both). He reminds the recipients that Trader Joe’s already offers higher starting wages, pay raises, and good benefits — all of which have “helped us be named the best company to work for in America.” Bane concludes with a pledge: “When this current period of unrest has settled down, if there are 30% of the Crew Members in any store that tell us they want to have a union vote... we will.”
And what of this “current period of unrest”? Standing demands from the organizing coalition include hazard pay of time and a half, free coronavirus testing for all workers, regular temperature checks, mandatory personal protective equipment, and two weeks of paid precautionary quarantine for anyone who has worked the same shifts as employees diagnosed with COVID-19.
The company, meanwhile, has put into place more measures to protect employees and customers. As of April 9, the list as it pertains to workers’ benefits and safety includes: reduced store hours, increased routine cleanings and sanitation, up to two weeks of additional paid leave for anyone who has symptoms or who is required to quarantine, the additional $2 an hour “thank you wage,” paying employees who are unable to work scheduled shifts due to a store closure, installing plexiglass barriers at registers, limiting the number of shoppers in the store and maintaining social distancing, and providing protective gear such as gloves and masks. Since late March, the company has also listed COVID-19-related closures on its website. All of these measures, as spokesperson Friend-Daniel pointed out to Eater in an email, are “meeting and exceeding” recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health officials.
“We understand this is a scary and unsettling time and we work hard every day to implement measures aimed at taking care of our Crew Members and customers and keeping them safe,” Friend-Daniel wrote. “We are also aware a union campaign is seeking to capitalize on the current environment in America — one in which misinformation and fear spreads easily. These union advocates rely heavily on mistruths, trying to stoke fear and distrust, and claims that only joining their union would protect the pay and benefits our Crew Members currently enjoy.”
The generous reading is that Trader Joe’s, as a company, may have made some mistakes — that, like the U.S. government, it has been slow to react, but unlike the federal government, it has moved to become proactive in addressing its people’s needs. “Every day, we’re listening to Crew Members and customers and re-evaluating what we’re doing and what we can do better,” Friend-Daniel said. “Our Crew Members are the heart of the company, every day going above and beyond to take care of customers and their communities.”
But some ask aloud if the grocery chain deserves this benefit of the doubt as it dares a third of its workers to call for a union. “The appearance of normalcy has been swapped out for the appearance of compassion. But there’s nothing substantive behind it,” the coalition of workers seeking unionization wrote to Eater in an email. “The company continues dragging their feet rolling out common sense policy that workers have been urgently calling for for weeks … It’s only through public pressure that the company has made minor adjustments, and all through a lens of what will most easily earn them positive media coverage.”
In the words of those workers: “It’s too little, too late.”
Correction: April 13, 2020: This piece has been updated to clarify the ownership of Trader Joe’s, and to reflect that Trader Joe’s has always posted coronavirus-related store closures on its website. This post has also been updated with additional statements from a company spokesperson.