What's Really Going On At Trader Joe's During The Pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out in the middle of March, one worker at Trader Joe's in New York took to Business Insider to talk about what it was like being on the front lines of a global public health crisis. Writer Jessica Bern said at the time. "Deciding between paying your bills or gambling with your life is not something I thought I would ever have to do, and yet here we are. The Trader Joe's lines — which can be very long on an average day — have now, at times, gotten even longer. Still we work very hard to get customers in and out, while telling them about our Buffalo Chicken Dip and what cracker goes best with our Blueberry Goat Cheese Roll." 

At the time the piece was written, Bern had been with Trader Joe's for about five months, and she was working between 30-38 hours a week. Even then, she described the situation as stressful, and said management had been reminding staff that they were all doing the best they could.

The death of one Trader Joe's employee has exposed problems at the grocery chain

Now employees are criticising Trader Joe's and the management's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they are hoping to form a union that might represent their best interests (via The New York Times). But whatever they do is too late for at least one Trader Joe's Crew Member. The worker, who was based in the Scarsdale, New York store, was said to have "underlying health conditions," and died of COVID-19 on April 6. Eater reports that the store was closed, and the deceased's co-workers were given time off to allow them to grieve. Unfortunately, The Daily Beast indicates that it is unclear whether the worker got sick on the job, or whether co-workers may have gotten sick too.

The death has exposed problems at a chain known for specialty foods and cheerful staff (known as Crew Members). Store employees tell The Daily Beast their colleagues are scared and confused, because not enough measures have been taken to protect them from COVID-19, nor have the benefits been commensurate with the hazards workers now face as they try and carry out their jobs in the midst of a pandemic. As one Trader Joe's worker tells The Daily Beast, "What's it going to take before the company realizes they can't rely on empty platitudes? Someone f****** died because Trader Joe's won't pay high-risk workers to stay home."

Trader Joe's has put in more measures to protect Crew Members and customers

To the company's credit and since the public health crisis worsened, Trader Joe's has put in more measures to protect both its Crew Members and the public; it has increased cleaning and sanitation, has given anyone who might have symptoms of COVID-19 two weeks paid time off, is paying an extra $2 an hour "thank you" wage, and paying workers who might not be able do his or her shifts thanks to a store closure. The company spokesperson, Kenya Friend-Daniel, also tells Eater that Trader Joe's has gone above and beyond measures that might have been recommended by health officials and by the CDC. But workers say this is all window dressing, and they are hoping to unionize so their voices are heard.

"The appearance of normalcy has been swapped out for the appearance of compassion. But there's nothing substantive behind it. 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," the pro-union workers tell Eater in an email.