Trader Joe's workers who raised safety concerns are afraid of losing their jobs

As workers fall ill, the chain diverts responsibility for safety onto its workers under the guise of "empowerment"

Published May 26, 2020 6:41PM (EDT)

A store associate distributes hand sanitizer to customers as they enter the Trader Joe's store (Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
A store associate distributes hand sanitizer to customers as they enter the Trader Joe's store (Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

Handwritten chalk signs, low prices, and a Hawaiian flower motif have earned Trader Joe's a reputation for being a fun, affordable, and value-conscious grocery store. Indeed, the nationwide chain, with over 505 stores, is beloved by consumers for its anti-corporate feel, and bills itself as a "neighborhood grocery store" — perhaps ironic given that its U.S. operations are owned by German grocery giant Aldi Nord

Yet Trader Joe's grocery workers across the country say that the store's friendly, relaxed image belies a set of inconsistent safety policies — which, amid a pandemic that has put front-line workers like grocery clerks at risk, is terrifying the company's non-union workforce. Indeed, Trader Joe's workers say management has been reluctant to strictly enforce new safety measures from corporate in an effort to communicate to customers that everything is "normal." The workers that Salon spoke with fear this is endangering customers and workers alike.

Worse, workers spoke of being retaliated against for raising concerns over safety during the pandemic — despite there being numerous cases of Trader Joe's workers around the country coming down with the novel coronavirus, and in one case dying.

As one long-time employee, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told Salon: "It's unfortunate that this cultivated air of positivity is working against us. You shouldn't try to make people comfortable in the grocery store. To make people comfortable right now is putting them in harm's way." 

"So many of us wish that Trader Joe's would just be firm and say, 'this is the policy right now. We're not just trying to protect you but we're trying to protect our crew'," says another Trader Joe's employee. 

"Their business model ... is to make [customers] feel comfortable."

Trader Joe's has recently come under fire for appearing to put customer comfort over employee safety. In March, employees in multiple locations reported being told by management they could not wear gloves or masks because the visual aesthetic might upset customers. Employees I spoke with for this story, in stores in New York, California and Kentucky, confirmed this. After pushback from employees and media attention, Trader Joe's stated its glove policy was that it had "no policy" and that workers were free to wear gloves.

Trader Joe's Public Relations director Kenya Friend-Daniel maintains "there was no policy announced" and that the company has "stressed to Crew Members that frequent and proper hand washing is one of the best ways to protect against the virus."

But two months into the pandemic, workers still feel that Trader Joe's attitude has been to make everything feel normal for customers, frequently at the expense of employees' well-being.

"It varies wildly store by store, but largely as a company, they've been doing their best to keep their business model, which is to make people feel comfortable," says a long-time employee.

For example, the Trader Joe's website states: "It is our preference for and we strongly encourage customers to wear a mask or face covering while shopping in all our stores. Where face coverings are required by local government, we communicate that to our customers as well."

An employee in a different state says their store is not requiring masks, despite a recent statewide directive to wear masks in public. (They also asked to withhold their name and location for fear of retaliation.)

"Management specifically said we're not going to police people who come into the store without masks, so essentially we're not going to prevent them from coming into the store without masks," they say. 

Friend-Daniel, Trader Joe's PR director, initially directed me back to the above webpage about masks. She later stated: "If a customer refuses to put on a mask, for whatever reason, we remind them of our preference. We do not want our Crew Members getting into verbal or physical confrontations with any customer, ever. Some areas where there is a mandate, have provided further instructions on what should be done in these instances."

Even to this week, workers say they have not had standardized communication from corporate during the pandemic aside from an anti-union mailed letter from the CEO, Dan Bane. If they did receive communication about new protocols, it came from store management during crew "huddles," or meetings — which typically were not socially distanced. 

One worker says, "It felt like we were abandoned in our time of greatest need. Corporate left all the stores to fend for themselves." 

Safety procedures appear unevenly executed

Trader Joe's website advertised stores' new safety measures as of April 11, including personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers and Plexiglass barriers. Friend-Daniel says, "we shared with our Crew Members on March 26th (days before the CDC changed its policy on masks) that we were having masks made for all of our Crew Members." She says that same day they also announced installation of Plexiglass at registers.

The company also instituted Crew Member Wellness Checks in mid-April. Trader Joe's states: "All of our stores are conducting Crew Member Wellness Checks with all Crew Members prior to the start of each shift." Crew Members are to be asked a series of questions to screen for potential exposure to or symptoms of COVID-19. But workers in stores across the country are reporting that Crew Member Wellness Checks are insufficient or even nonexistent. 

The company website frames the checks as being conducted prior to the start of a shift. But an employee in New York told me that his Wellness Check usually is conducted after he's been working for at least an hour and traversed the store.

Dustin Pickett, a former employee in Louisville, KY, likewise says Wellness Checks are "not proceduralized." The week before he was terminated, Pickett said he had not had a Wellness Check at all. When he did get a Check, it consisted of a manager approaching him at some point during his shift and saying, "I forgot your Wellness Check." Pickett would then simply confirm he was feeling okay with a thumbs up or verbal acknowledgement. 

An employee in a different state said her Wellness Checks are essentially self-administered. Managers leave a list of symptoms near the time clock for workers to review when they clock in—after already walking through the store to get to the time clock. She said that in seven shifts, only once has a manager followed up with her to confirm she completed the Wellness Check. 

Another employee says that during a crew "huddle," employees were simply told by management that "they think everyone has integrity to not come in if they feel sick." She says no one has asked her screening questions for symptoms since the third day after Wellness Checks were instituted.

When Salon asked Trader Joe's for more details on how Wellness Checks are expected to be standardized and implemented, when and where they should take place and if they include temperature checks, Friend-Daniel responded with the text verbatim from the Trader Joe's website as mentioned above.

As many states re-open their economies, employees also expressed concern about the steadily increasing number of shoppers. Multiple workers at the same location told me that as their state relaxed capacity standards for essential businesses, management has refused to actually monitor the amount of people in the store to align with state-mandated numbers.

"I was working at the register when the Captain [general manager] came in from the front where he had been speaking with the host who manages the traffic flow. I looked up and saw a flood of people who were packed into lines at the register and were not even capable of social distancing due to the sheer numbers," says one employee. 

"I said, "This is more than 35!" And he said, "I can explain. There is no number. We are going to base this on flow. If you feel like it's too many, you can go to the Mate in charge and ask them if they can reduce the number. They will decide if that is appropriate or necessary."

A Queens, NY employee says the amount of people in his store at one time has doubled in the past few weeks. He described the store itself as very small, which makes social distancing even more difficult with these growing numbers. Seven employees at this store have tested positive for the coronavirus.

But management brushed off his concern, he says. "Too many people based on what standard?" they asked him. He says that how closely protocols are followed in his store varies from day to day, manager to manager, and are even subject to a manager's mood.

"Everything is handled on a store by store basis," says Kris King, a former long-time Trader Joe's employee. "They like to handle everything by conversation." 

Concerned over safety, King started a Facebook group for Trader Joe's workers to express their safety concerns. King was let go from Trader Joe's in March; he says that a manager saw his Facebook group and page and mentioned it to him as one of the reasons that he was let go. 

King is currently suing the company for wrongful termination, alleging that the store did not take specific steps to protect customers and workers and that he was fired for speaking up about this. Trader Joe's denies these allegations and is attempting to have the lawsuit dismissed. Friend-Daniel declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Management shifts responsibility for safety onto individual workers

Workers' stories illuminate a pattern of management shunting responsibility for safety onto individual coworkers in the absence of more formalized policies from corporate. 

"Store managers are a little out of their depth right now and that's not their fault," says one employee. "But they're waiting for stuff to trickle down from corporate. They're sort of rudderless because corporate has not been forthcoming."

One employee says she's asked management multiple times to place Xs on the floor by registers to visually mark where customers should stand when they are paying or waiting for groceries to be bagged. Many customers come closer than 6 feet or move around the Plexiglass barriers, and she has very little room behind her register to distance from them. 

"I've been told multiple times that we don't want to tell customers where to stand," she says. "But we're doing that outside with markers telling them where to stand. So there's inconsistency with that.'"

Instead, management told her, "I want you to be empowered to have this conversation with customers." 

She says she responded, "I don't need to be empowered! I need you [management] to stand up." 

Even so, when one worker in the same store did feel "empowered" to discuss social distancing with customers, management took disciplinary action against them. This state currently has a mandate that says only one person per household is allowed in essential businesses where possible. At this Trader Joe's store, there's a sign on the door, but management told workers not to "police" customers about it, this employee says. 

"I was written up for talking to customers about the one person per household rule. I wasn't "policing" them, but I was starting a conversation," they say. "If I found a group of people coming through my line I would ask, 'Hey, did they tell you upfront about the one person per household rule?'"

"One of my managers heard me talking about it with a customer and another customer told me she was uncomfortable that I mentioned it to her, that I was lecturing her about the rule. So I was written up for that. But I feel like they should have stuck up for me. They should have just explained to the customer that's a rule the governor has put in place."

A worker in a different state said that when the company began issuing masks made of cotton t-shirt material, there was no discussion of mask safety. She was concerned that the masks tended to shrink in the wash, and that their lack of adjustable nose wires meant that they would slip off one's face. When she asked a manager to hold a discussion about it, she was told to do it herself.

"The manager let me have safety huddles so I was able to talk to the crew about how to adjust those masks or how to try to refrain from touching your mask by your nose and mouth," she says. 

While she says she's grateful she was allowed to do this, she also feels she shouldn't have to: "My manager was the one who suggested I do it. But it doesn't feel like my job. It feels like the company's job to actually educate everyone."

Workers asking for safer conditions now feel targeted

Kris King, the former employee in Louisville, KY who is currently suing the company, told me that it was only after his story went public in early April did Trader Joe's announce they were implementing safety policies nationwide — policies that were on his coworkers' list of demands to management. He says management at his store did not communicate in any way that the new safety measures were related to King's list of demands. 

"All of the changes we have seen slowly implemented and announced by management were things we had advocated for and pushed for in our original set of demands," says Dustin Pickett, who was part of the original Facebook group in the Louisville store. "But as they have trickled in, they have been presented as gifts of management from on high."

Pickett and King were both surprised by the open hostility they encountered to the small amount of worker organization the Facebook group represented.

"It was organized, but it was initially focused on safety," Pickett says. "There was no talk of unionizing at that point. But the fact that we were talking at all registered as a threat to both management and other crew members," he says.

Immediately prior to this story's publication, Pickett was let go from Trader Joe's with no notice. He said he had been written up once over a scheduling conflict after the Facebook group organizing became public in what he feels is retaliatory action. The reason management cited for his termination was multiple absences.

A Queens, NY employee told me his hours were cut and he felt a shift in management's attitude towards him after he brought up safety concerns. While many workers' hours have been cut, he says that the employees who haven't complained to management during the pandemic have not had hours cut.

Other workers who've spoken out said they feel dismissed for wanting safer working conditions. The worker who was written up for speaking with customers about the one person per household mandate says management told them they could "leave at any time" if they were unsatisfied. They now say that management appears to be following them around the store, keeping an eye on them.

"But in order to keep my job I have to act like everything is fine," they say.

Another worker in a different state says she repeatedly spoke with management about safety protocols and asked for clarity from HR. She was simply told that if she was uncomfortable, she could take a leave of absence.

Not only are the demands of work and dismissiveness from higher-ups affecting workers' physical health, they're taking a toll on their mental and emotional health as well. 

"Sometimes you'll just be kind of in a daze or a fog," says one employee. "And you can see it on people's faces if they're in that. There's a sick feeling every time you're getting ready to go to work."

These workers say they have overall enjoyed working at Trader Joe's; some of them have been with the company for over a decade. To be told that they can just leave when they want to see some improvement to working conditions is demoralizing.

"Conversations we've had with our own Mates [managers] where they're dismissing the seriousness of what's going on have just been discouraging. If this happened at any other company, I would have immediately quit," says this employee. 

One of the values that Trader Joe's touts is kaizen, a Japanese word roughly meaning "continuous self-improvement," but workers say the company isn't living up to that principle during the pandemic.

"It's supposed to be one of our principles, that you're open to kaizen," this employee says. "But it doesn't feel like our opinions are openly accepted right now."

By Mary Steffenhagen

Mary Steffenhagen is a writer and candidate for an M.A. in journalism at The New School for Social Research. She writes about labor organizing, religion’s influence on politics in America and YouTube rabbit holes. She tweets at @MarySteffenhag1.

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Coronavirus Covid-19 Essential Businesses Essential Workers Grocery Pandemic Trader Joe's Workers