In addition to people like doctors, nurses, and firefighters, grocery store employees — whether at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or your local bodega — are now considered essential workers during the global coronavirus pandemic. This means they’re putting themselves in danger every day in order to make sure we continue to have access to fresh food and other necessities. Unfortunately, many of them are still making low wages, working in unsanitary conditions, and have limited access to healthcare, even as they’re risking their lives.
To learn more about what grocery store workers are experiencing right now and what kind of support they need going forward, we spoke to an anonymous Trader Joe’s crew member in early April, when the national lockdown was in its infancy, and again in early May. She details being told not to wear a mask or gloves at the beginning of the pandemic, and having her concerns about her personal safety minimized by supervisors. She’s concerned about meeting her $7000 insurance deductible if she does get sick (she says she’s not able to get healthcare through Trader Joe’s), and is trying to find a way to manage the stress that comes with being on the sales floor every day. She also hopes the leadership at her company will consider being more receptive to unionization efforts, because in her words, “they don't see what we're dealing with everyday.”
Refinery29 reached out to Trader Joe’s for comment on the crew member’s allegations. A representative said the chain has “offered Crew Members multiple additional ways to qualify for and maintain health insurance.” The representative added: “As this unprecedented situation continues to evolve, so has our approach to doing all that we can to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our Crew Members and customers. We have continued to look to the CDC for guidance on best health and safety practices, and work closely with local and state health officials, meeting and exceeding all health and safety recommendations. Every day, we’re listening to Crew Members and customers and re-evaluating what we’re doing and what we can do better.” Trader Joe’s did not directly address allegations by the crew member that the company initially didn’t want employees wearing face masks and gloves, nor did it address charges of being anti-union.
Here’s what she had to say about her experience on the frontlines of the pandemic at one of America’s most popular grocery chains.
How long have you been working at Trader Joe’s for, and what’s your role there?
I am at Trader Joe's full-time, I’m a crew member. I've been working at a store in [redacted] since October, but I've been with the company for about two and a half years. I worked at one in [redacted], so I'm a rehire. [As of May], I've transferred to a different store so it's interesting to see how a different store is handling things. At my old store, I've been told they're cutting hours. At my new store, we're starting to let a lot more people into the store which has made me and some other crew members uncomfortable. Nothing new in the way of protections or hazard pay. But the attitude of management seems to have shifted lately to become more focused on increasing profits.
You’re an “essential worker” on the front lines of this pandemic — what has that been like?
Just broadly, I mean, it's been pretty stressful. Things change so rapidly, one day we’re just
grocery store employees, and then the next day we have been deemed essential workers in a pandemic. As soon as that happened, people freaked out and just started hoarding stuff. And so, in one day, our store made like a quarter of a million dollars. That’s how much people were buying. This was probably like [beginning of March], as soon as stay-at-home orders were put in place. Everyone just started freaking out because no one knew what was happening, and we didn't even know what was happening. We just went in and basically all of our customers had bought out the entire store. There were a lot of questions and confusion at that point being like, okay, well, how are we being protected, though? How can we buy our groceries at the end of the shift if there is nothing left to buy? At that point, the store started taking measures, only letting a certain amount of people into the store at one time and also limiting how many of certain items people could buy — there was a two-item cap on basically everything in the store. Attitudes among workers is that we're all burnt out. Even some mates (store supervisors) have expressed to me they're burnt out. We wish we would be compensated in a more significant way by the company.
Is most of your store stocked now?
Yeah, our store is fully stocked now. The only thing we still don’t have, that's still a case-by-case basis, is toilet paper and paper towels. And flour still goes pretty quickly.
What kind of directives and resources have you been given by TJs in terms of keeping yourself and others safe? Do you think it’s been enough?
This is the point of contention that I have and that a lot of other crew members have too.
I think they’ve been really slow to implement safety measures for the crew. It was only just [in late March] that we were allowed to wear gloves out to register, because we weren't allowed to previously. And also, it was only just this past week that we have been able to wear masks, because before we weren't able to. Upper management just didn’t take it seriously until they had to, so that was really disappointing. [In early March], crew members were starting to get really concerned about what this would mean for our jobs, how we would be protected, and our upper management -- supervisors are called “mates” and then the store managers are called “captains” — I'll say, I have a really good captain at my store, but most of our mates, they just did not take it seriously and they would be openly hostile about crew members’ concerns and stuff. I didn't really feel protected by that. And it's only just a few days ago that they started wearing masks because the city told them they had to, but otherwise they wouldn't have.
In [redacted], anyone who wants a COVID-19 test is able to get one. But there is a new procedure before we enter the store we're asked a series of COVID related questions -- one being about if we're waiting for test results. Therefore, if you get the test, you're unable to return to work until you get negative results. It's unclear to me if we're paid for the days we miss while waiting for results.
[Editor’s note: According to a spokesperson for Trader Joe’s, “Those who are asked not to work based on their responses will be paid for their scheduled shift(s) and will return to work only when they are again able to pass the Wellness Check.”]
What’s the reasoning for them to not want you wearing masks or gloves?
It's genuinely just because it doesn't look good. That's that's the only reason; it doesn't look good. They think that people will think that we are sick, they just don't think it looks good. There is no other reason.
Are they now providing you with masks and gloves, or do you have to do that yourself?
They are giving us gloves and masks, but it’s just this week they started doing that.
Are you getting hazard pay?
So we had been told we were getting a bonus. My captain had shown me the paperwork; he told me I'd be getting $300, and then it direct-deposited in my bank account the next day for almost half that, $180. The bonus was taxed at like 50%, which people were really upset about. So then after, they implemented a $2/hour raise for everybody. But it's just a temporary raise. They’re going to take it all away eventually. This doesn't make any sense to me because I'm like, alright, you're showing me you can pay me more money, even when you're making less money. Why wouldn't you be able to continue to pay me [an extra] $2/hour after this? And they haven't classified it as hazard pay. The raise is basically just a ‘thank you’ to get people to continue to show up. The people who are trying to unionize and advocate for hazard pay, they are asking for time-and-a-half.
[Editor’s note: Trader Joe’s responded to a request for comment about this situation, stating: “We provided bonuses to Crew Members, however now that sales are down, we are providing all Crew Members with an increase of $2/hour. As of now there is no end date to the increase, as we do not know how long the situation will last.”]
Do you think Trader Joe’s workers should be unionized?
I am definitely pro-union. I absolutely think that crew members should be unionized, especially now. I think that's why the union efforts really started at the same time [as the pandemic], because people realized, we’re the ones on the front line. We need to feel safe and be protected throughout these times. The upper management at the company, the corporate people are making these decisions, they don't see what we're dealing with everyday. I think it’s been made clear, just by the corporate response, that the bottom line isn’t protecting the workers, the bottom line is capitalizing upon this moment as much as possible.
[On March 31] we received a letter from the president of Trader Joe's, Dan Bane, with the most despicable response to the union. People at my store were talking to me about it, and they were like, I didn't even know there was an effort to unionize. And then after I got that letter, it made me be like, huh, this is very anti-worker, and anti-union. Maybe I should be looking into organizing this store. It was just such corporate propaganda. So I am in support of the union, 100%.
[Editor’s note: Refinery29 has obtained a copy of the letter in question.]
Trader Joe’s has a reputation for being progressive and even employee-friendly. Do you think they deserve that reputation, based on how they’ve treated workers these past few weeks?
I think, you know, what I've been shown by the company is that they're just another corporation. They could be doing so much more — I am able to see, just being in the store, how much money just my one store makes every single day. Hand over fist, we are raking in money. And then I see how little they're giving back to us. I mean, I'm technically a full-time employee and I don't even qualify for health insurance through Trader Joe's. I had to go through [redacted] because I didn’t make enough hours, even though I work four to five times a week. I think maybe at one point, they could have made an argument that they were a better place to work than other grocery or retail stores, but things have changed so much. If they want to keep that reputation, then they have to make big pro-worker changes to uphold that reputation.
Do you feel like you're being compensated fairly for the work you're being asked to do?
I think everyone who is working right now should be getting time-and-a-half, so no, I don't feel like I'm fairly compensated. And also, I think that I should be getting health insurance through them. I understand that their enrollment periods may not align perfectly with, you know, when a pandemic happens. But I feel like there should be an option that they could open up for me, because my deductible on my insurance now is $7,000. So what happens to me, then, if I get sick, or something does happen to me?
Have they addressed what happens if you do get sick on the job?
I believe we get two weeks paid sick leave now, which is different, they've implemented that. They’re basically like, if you feel sick, if you don't feel safe coming in, you don't have to. But also, you’re not being paid for that. They’re saying, they won’t fire me if I just don’t want to work. But also, I’m not being paid if I don’t feel safe to come in, so that’s not really an option for me.
Has anyone who works in your store gotten sick?
I don’t believe so. We have people who have been out sick, but I think they’re just taking extra precautions. Even if they just have a cold or something, even if it’s not coronavirus, you just can’t have sick people at work. But I don't think that there's been any cases at my store that I know of. We’re really lucky.
What have your interactions with customers been like?
Honestly, people have been really, really good. They've been super kind and really patient with us. Everyone is saying, thank you so much for coming in and working, you guys are heroes.
What do you think the government, either locally or nationally, should be doing to help grocery store employees and other essential workers right now?
I don’t understand how there isn’t a city-wide rent freeze and forgiveness program happening. The only thing I’ve heard of is a moratorium on evictions. So it's like, technically, if you don't pay your rent, they can't evict you right now. But there's no protections as soon as those moratoriums have lifted — not only can they evict you, but you’ll have to pay the back-rent you haven’t paid. People are not getting paid as much as they had. The fact that they still have to pay as much in rent, when they’re not making as much money, that is something I just don’t understand. And then, of course, Medicare For All needs to be a discussion after this. I hope now, people realize how integral that would be for people, just to have one less thing to worry about when stuff like this happens — to be protected from medical costs, and have medical access. I also think hazard pay should be instated nationwide for all employees that are working on the front lines.
What’s been the biggest challenge for you as a worker during this time?
Honestly, what's been the hardest for me has been stress management. Even though, at work, it’s honestly kind of slower now — they haven’t been laying people off, which is good, and they haven’t been cutting hours, which is also good — but there is less work to do, because we don't have the volume of people who are usually shopping in our store at once. But the customer interactions are just so much more stressful now — it’s my job to interact with people at the register every day, and just have a human conversation — but because everyone is so burdened now, all of those interactions are so much more tenuous. I’m trying to be positive and optimistic, but not in an insensitive way, chatting with people about their situations. And then also just having to be in a highly-exposed position is stressful. My health insurance is basically useless. So it’s just stress management and figuring out how to not take all those emotions home with me, and how to continue to do my job in an effective way.
Is there anything that’s happened that has surprised you, maybe in a positive way?
The thing that I always love to see is customers making a community effort. People are shopping for neighbors who can't come out, or friends who are busy with work, or older family members. That’s always good to see, people who are able doing the most that they can for other people.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
The coronavirus pandemic, and resulting economic downturn, has disproportionately affected some professions — doctors, nurses, teachers, small business owners, cashiers, and food industry workers are just some of the folks on the front lines. Checking In is an ongoing series where we pass the microphone to workers in industries most impacted, and ask them what they want us to know about their hopes, fears, and needs right now. Click here if you want to participate.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.