In mid-March of 2020, I gathered shoulder to shoulder with dozens of fellow Trader Joe’s crew members for a mid-shift huddle. Just a handful of miles away, COVID-19 was spreading rapidly in one of the country’s first hot spots in New Rochelle, New York. Soon the National Guard would be deployed to establish a quarantine zone.
But business was booming at our branch, where frenzied shoppers cleared the shelves preparing to stay home to “Flatten the Curve.” While customers packed the aisles and sent store profits soaring, our primary job, managers explained, was to keep everybody calm — to maintain the appearance of normality.
My coworkers and I were instructed not to wear masks or gloves to avoid “spreading panic,” despite managers also reading aloud a CDC memo detailing the virulent symptoms of the virus. If we needed to wash our hands, we were instructed to ask a manager for a break and walk across the crowded store to the restrooms.
This sounded absurd. Many of my coworkers were elderly, and all of us were aware of the basic public health guidance that was being flouted. I voiced my concern to store managers, asking if I could wear gloves during my shift on the register. This, I explained, would not only protect me but also the hundreds of customers whose food items I was handling each shift. After a brief conference, the managers dismissed my concerns and sent me home without pay.
Nearly a year later, with the exposure of grocery workers to COVID-19 well documented, management at a New York City Trader Joe’s fired a crew member for expressing safety concerns in a letter to CEO Dan Bane. In that employee’s termination letter, managers wrote: “It is clear that you do not understand our Values. As a result, we are no longer comfortable having you work for Trader Joe’s.”
Trader Joe’s has become a liberal darling and amassed something of a cult following via their image as a friendly, upbeat place to both work and shop. Ostensibly existing outside the cruel, cutthroat, and anonymous market economy, they are not your average, impersonal big-box grocery chain, they claim. According to their tagline, they are, instead, “your neighborhood grocery store.”
Customers can sample any item in the store for free (yes, really). Managers wear colorful Hawaiian shirts as a sign of unfussy hierarchy. Returns are announced by ringing large brass bells, to the amusement of young children. And, famously, your chatty cashier will frequently opine that your chosen purchases are dangerously addictive.
To the company’s “overeducated and underpaid” customer base, the Trader Joe’s crackdown on employees who have voiced COVID-19 safety concerns has seemed particularly off-brand. The friendly neighborhood grocery store was supposed to put workers’ and customers’ safety first, unlike the faceless corporate behemoth down the street.
And yet, as Trader Joe’s employees know, these retaliatory actions were not aberrations but instances of the company’s long-standing negligence of worker safety, and its concerted efforts to quell employee organizing.
Following my dismissal for requesting personal protective equipment (PPE), I took an unpaid leave from Trader Joe’s out of concern for my family’s health. I was fortunate — for many of my coworkers, to do so would be financially untenable.
Over the next few weeks, I received messages from more than a dozen crew members who had symptoms of the virus. Many were struggling to breathe and terrified for their immunocompromised parents, partners, and roommates. They described minimal efforts to enforce social distancing in packed aisles. ShopRite, a union grocery chain one mile away, enacted plexiglass barriers to protect their employees in March; Trader Joe’s took more than a month to follow suit. In the meantime, a worker at the neighboring Trader Joe’s in Scarsdale, New York, died of COVID-19.
The company’s hostile approach toward COVID-19 safety measures was not limited to my location. Reports across the country emerged that Trader Joe’s employees faced inconsistent messaging about when employees could wear PPE, and that managers frequently did not inform crew members about potential COVID-19 exposures, leaving workers unaware of when they should self-isolate.
Across the country, Trader Joe’s crew members quickly realized that their counterparts at union grocery chains — the same chains from which Trader Joe’s tries so hard to distinguish itself — actually received stronger safety protections. A Twitter account called Crew for a Trader Joe’s Union documented safety violations at Trader Joe’s stores nationwide and reported positive cases by store when the company failed to do so.
After months of unclear directives from Trader Joe’s on COVID-19 safety, CEO Dan Bane promptly issued a national, unambiguously anti-union communication. In a letter sent to all Trader Joe’s employees, Bane maligned the union for “inject[ing] itself into the lives of our crew members during this time of crisis.” Store managers were swiftly given talking points against unionization to recite at team huddles, including the infantilizing note “Voting for a union is a big decision. It’s not like buying toothpaste you don’t end up liking. It’s like buying a house . . . you’re in for the long term.”
Countering their spate of bad press, Trader Joe’s announced a temporary $4-per-hour pay increase in February 2021. Temporarily increasing pay while refusing to enforce COVID-19 safety might appear inconsistent, but it is rooted in Trader Joe’s business model, which relies upon orchestrating interpersonal connections between customers and employees, no matter the cost to worker safety.
As president of stores Jon Basalone explained in 2018 about Trader Joe’s refusal to sell online: “The store is our brand, and our products work the best when they’re sold as part of this overall customer experience within the store, and so we’re not ready to give that up.” While other grocery stores sell products, Trader Joe’s sells a connection.
As a Trader Joe’s crew member, I was taught to provide customers with a “WOW” customer experience. The company banally defines this as a moment where shoppers think: “Wow! That was enjoyable, and I got a great deal. I look forward to coming back!” To facilitate the “WOW” factor, I was prohibited from pointing to or describing where products are located in the store. When asked, crew members are trained to walk customers directly to the product in question, allowing opportunity for conversation and engagement with shoppers.
Employees are also expected to project good spirits and a calm temperament, a prime example of Arlie Hochschild’s oft-misapplied concept of emotional labor. All customer service jobs require some degree of emotional regulation, but Trader Joe’s has an exceptionally high standard. It’s at the core of their brand.
Lapses in emotional labor, or having a bad day, can be costly. One worker discovered this after he was allegedly fired for having an “insufficiently genuine smile.”
Lifesaving though they may be, COVID-19 safety regulations are also seen by Trader Joe’s management as antithetical to the company’s revered positive connection between customers and employees. Masks hide employees’ practiced smiles. Plexiglass creates a physical barrier to intimacy. Instructing a customer to remain six feet away or put their mask over their nose might make the person feel annoyed instead of saying “Wow!” Online ordering or curbside pickup to reduce in-store traffic are unacceptable at Trader Joe’s, as close in-person interaction is always prioritized — even during a deadly global pandemic and at the cost of its own staff’s safety.
Before resigning from Trader Joe’s, I filed a whistleblower claim with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The company eventually agreed to provide compensation for the missed hours from my shift, minus the additional $2 per hour in hazard pay, after I was denied PPE and sent home.
After the New York City crew member’s tweet over his dismissal went viral, and facing both a nationwide boycott and hearing before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Trader Joe’s agreed to reinstate the employee with back pay.
However, last month, an NLRB attorney argued in a memo that Trader Joe’s properly fired a crew member for posting about COVID-19 safety concerns and customer shopping practices on Facebook, claiming that the post was “disloyal” to customers, who are the “life blood of a retailer’s business.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that, even with its workers’ lives on the line, Trader Joe’s will put corporate profit before workers’ safety. More than a colorful option for affordable groceries, Trader Joe’s is a marketer of a hollow liberal aesthetic. It is designed to make customers feel like they are exercising agency, participating in an alternative to soulless corporate chains, and supporting human decency. But ultimately, it is an exorbitantly profitable corporation that has found its niche and is running with it, safety of its workers be damned. Unsurprisingly, Trader Joe’s is one of the first major grocery chains to drop the mask mandate for customers, without requiring proof of vaccination.
For guaranteed protections, especially as the company prepares to withdraw its pandemic hazard pay, workers need formal representation through a union. Perhaps then workers would have something to genuinely smile about.