While Trader Joe’s reigns among other grocery stores for its progressive, diverse work environment, my time spent working in one of its grocery stores during the pandemic has ended as I’ve become disillusioned with that facade.
I worked at a Florida location of Trader Joe’s for two years and nine months and quickly noticed the general praise for “essential workers” shift into Trader Joe’s employees questioning just how essential they are, especially considering the company’s low wages, lack of COVID-19 protection, and absence of workers’ rights.
In the era of The Great Resignation and the wave of unionizations, workers at Target, Apple, Starbucks, and Amazon have proven that the fight for workers’ rights is just beginning—and they’re directly calling out exploitation in the workplace. While workers at grocery stores like Kroger and Albertsons have unionized with the support of the UFCW, many grocery store chains are notorious for union-busting—including Trader Joe’s.
During the beginning of the pandemic, the grocery chain’s corporate head Dan Bane issued a letter to crew members—what Trader Joe’s calls their employees—thanking us for our service and essentially warning us that unions are “capitalizing” on the pandemic. Around the same time corporate distributed the letter, store management began integrating anti-union rhetoric into nightly staff meetings. Unionization discussions among crew members dissipated because of retaliation fears and miscommunications that suggested the store planned to implement COVID-19 protections to address the concerns that fueled the unionization discussions. Bane’s disingenuous attempt to empathize with the crew was dismissive of the working-class struggle and tarnished the benefits that a union could bring us.
The beginning of the pandemic had also increased the grocery store’s cult following online through the rise of TikTok and Trader Joe’s-centered Facebook groups, which embrace the store’s unique products. But the chain’s growing digital popularity overshadowed workers’ realities. Internally, many of us were frustrated with the company’s ever-changing policies and lack of COVID-19 protections. Crew members became increasingly unhappy with the working conditions, and the corporate decision to remove biannual raises and replace them with the temporary hazard pay did not go over well.
In April 2020, after receiving flak for this union-busting tactic and the first COVID-19 death of an employee, the company quickly initiated an additional $2 per hour hazard pay, which it called “thank you pay” and eventually raised it to $4 per hour. However, at the same time, Trader Joe’s eliminated biannual raises. Still, the hazard pay quickly helped to shift away from the narrative of Trader Joe’s being anti-union to the notion that the corporation was “one of the good ones” that took care of their workers. When the short-lived hazard pay ceased three months later and the chain reinstated its biannual raises, Trader Joe’s reverted to a work environment that didn’t consider its workers’ suggestions or concerns. Across stores, where state governments allowed it, management slowly removed coronavirus safety protocols like mask mandates, pre-shift wellness checks, and limited store capacities in hopes of returning to normalcy despite the continued rise of variants and mass death.
While the company reassured crew members that their voices were heard, Trader Joe’s actions contradicted those words, particularly when crew member Ben Bonnema was fired from his position at a New York location for voicing his concerns about how the company was handling COVID-19. After Bonnema’s post went viral on Twitter, he was promptly rehired.
Trader Joe’s cavalier attitude toward worker safety also translated to how it dealt with the uprisings in the summer of 2020. Poorly communicated COVID-19 safety precautions joined the growing list of grievances as the company ignored the cries of the crew and customers to address George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement. On June 6, 2020, the company released a vague statement that, to Black workers like me, felt disingenuous in light of our working conditions and experiences.
Despite stating their lack of tolerance for “racism, discrimination, harassment, or intimidation,” the company failed to state “Black Lives Matter” and fell short of what was expected for a company that relies on its Black crew members for diversity and inclusion. In my letter of resignation on April 25, I detailed the moment in fall 2020 when my manager asked me to remove my Black Lives Matter mask. That summer, multiple customers had called to complain about my “political” mask and said they shouldn’t have to deal with that while shopping. I wouldn’t have felt the need to take a stand against police brutality and racial injustices at work if the same company that thrived off of being progressive had been more vocal to relieve their Black employees of that burden. Considering the company’s longstanding embrace of culturally insensitive product names (which have since been changed) and the company temporarily shutting down a store that participated in Black Lives Matter protests, I was unsurprised by how Trader Joe’s handled discrimination and anti-Blackness.
While working for the company for four years at both Tallahassee, Florida, and Brooklyn, New York, stores, Callum Wever shared that he noticed the company didn’t take much action against microaggressions that happened to crew members of color. After overhearing a former coworker compare the child of an Asian customer to gyoza, he immediately reported the comment for harmful intent, only for no anti-racist or DEI trainings to be enacted.
“I reported them to our general manager and was pushing for a store meeting to talk about what’s appropriate to say and not say at work,” he said. “So [my manager] figured that the best way to handle it was to briefly acknowledge it during [the employee’s] review period about refraining from saying anything sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.”
My former coworkers and I frequently discussed the lack of care HR showed for crew members who faced serious grievances like sexual harassment or endured racially insensitive comments at the company. Some crew members even said that management completely disregarded the difficult health issues they experienced and threatened them with termination.
Hannah Normile worked at the Tallahassee location and began dealing with health problems during their three months there. “I have a really bad history with debilitating stomach problems. I have a really bad gluten allergy, lactose allergy, IBS, and I’m in the process of seeing if I have Crohn’s, so I called the store to let them know that I couldn’t come in because I couldn’t even move away from the bathroom,” they recalled. “When Trader Joe’s hires you, [they let you know] how sick days work and reassure you that they care about their crew. So I went in with the intention that everything was going to be fine and that I could get a doctor’s note. When I called the store and told them about my health problems, [the mate who answered the phone] proceeded to sigh and gaslight me about if I was actually feeling OK. When I started crying because of the pain that I was in, she sighed and hung up.”
Normile shared that they were threatened with termination if they didn’t bring a doctor’s note into work shortly after their absence.
Prism reached out to Trader Joe’s for comment, but they did not return a request for a statement.
On May 14, Perfect Union shared a six-minute video of Trader Joe’s employees that announced that they were forming an independent union at their store in Hadley, Massachusetts.
“Two years ago, in March of 2020, you mailed a letter to our homes. In this letter, you argued against unionization, asserting that unions were attempting to ‘drive discontent,’” the workers wrote in their letter to Bane. “Since that letter arrived in our mailboxes, Trader Joe’s has continued to slash our benefits as our wages stagnate and our safety concerns go unaddressed. We’ve come to the conclusion that, in fact, a union is the only way to protect and improve our pay and benefits.” While organizing under the name Trader Joe’s United, the Hadley crew members will be the grocery store’s first union if successful.
Unionizing efforts may not be practical for each location, but they’re definitely worth the attempt, especially for a crew that has seen little to no change reflected in their stores. The list of demands can include higher wages, better paid time off and sick pay, flexible qualifications for insurance, continued hazard pay, and protections for marginalized groups that face discrimination and aggressions at work. While changing Trader Joe’s seems hopeless at times, I do believe that the crew members can hold power over the company if solidarity and strategy are top priorities. Realizing that your fellow crew members are being exploited is a valid segue to building solidarity within a store.