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Trader Joe’s Employees Say Virus Response Was Haphazard, Chaotic

April 8, 2020, 9:00 AM

On a recent Saturday morning in downtown Brooklyn, well before the Trader Joe’s at City Point was to open its doors at 9 a.m., a line already snaked several blocks away from the entrance. Onlookers took photos and posted them on social media. The doors were flanked by security guards and Trader Joe’s employees in Hawaiian print shirts, limiting the number of shoppers who could enter. Hundreds of customers stood six feet apart from each other, brandishing tote bags and coffee cups. One woman was reading a Tolstoy novel.

The scene is similar from Brooklyn to Bend, Ore., as Trader Joe’s faces a surge in demand brought on by the coronavirus outbreak. Customers are clamoring for the offbeat, friendly uncle of the grocery world. But behind the smiles is a different reality for many Trader Joe’s crew members. The very things that make the company different—small spaces, free samples, no self-checkout or online delivery—are also making it difficult to navigate working there in the coronavirus era. In interviews with dozens of crew members in the last two weeks, a picture emerges of an inconsistent effort to protect workers, even as stores reportedly log record-setting revenues.

The interior of a Trader Joe’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, as a man in a flowered shirt (right) holds a sign pointing to the end of a very long, winding checkout line.
Photographer: Dorothy Alexander / Alamy Stock Photo

Policies and guidelines from the government have changed rapidly in recent weeks, and Trader Joe’s is among the large institutions fighting to respond. “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,” a Trader Joe’s spokesperson says in a statement. “We have continued to look to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] 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.”

The virus has brought attention to essential but often overlooked grocery and food-service workers. On March 31, workers at Whole Foods staged a “sick out,” and movements for recognition are also under way at Costco and Starbucks. Earlier this week, Trader Joe’s was among the stores that reported one of its employees had died of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to the Washington Post. “We are putting ours and our family’s lives, as well as our customers’, on the line each and every day,” one Trader Joe’s employee says. Others have complained about the lack of hazard pay or consistent communication about safety protocols from headquarters. Trader Joe’s response, say employees, has been too little and too late. “The initial period when it was declared a national emergency was scary,” another Trader Joe’s employee says. “We were completely blindsided. We were all on top of each other. It was scary and unsafe.”

A trip to the grocery store these days can be both a source of stress and a sanctuary, one of the few points of social interaction in many customer’s weekly routines. Beyond providing the essential service of selling food, staffers at Trader Joe’s do so with pluck. The company’s mission statement, according to its Crew Handbook, reads that customer satisfaction is to be “delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, fun, individual pride, and company spirit.” Historically, Trader Joe’s has been known as one of the best companies to work for. It offers health care, retirement plans, and higher wages than many of its competitors. Its company values and hiring practices are the stuff of retail lore, chronicled in a Harvard Business School case study. Employees are often expected to work the whole store—stocking shelves, commanding the registers, greeting customers at the door. Trader Joe’s stores are also more compact by design and built in populated areas, an efficient strategy in the past that may be part of their vulnerability now. By some measures, they conduct double the sales per square foot than competitors such as Whole Foods.

The biggest appeal is the prices, the shelves brimming with goods under $5. The company negotiates directly with suppliers to sell goods under their private label for lower costs. “Our ideal customer is overeducated and underpaid,” late founder Joe Coulombe told LA Weekly in 2005. The first Trader Joe’s opened its doors in Pasadena in 1967; the company has since grown to some 500 locations. The original aim was never to be a fully stocked grocery store, but to provide the same wine, cheese, and other goods that travelers to Europe missed upon returning stateside from vacation. While Trader Joe’s stores have expanded well beyond wine and cheese, they are still considered “limited assortment” stores, and the company maintains less than 3% market share among grocery and supermarket stores, according to IBIS World.

Joe Coulombe, founder of the Trader Joe’s grocery chain, is shown at a store in Huntington Beach, Calif., in 1986.
Photographer: John Blackmer/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register/Getty Images

Mark Gardiner, a former Trader Joe’s employee who wrote the book Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s, points out that the company has built a cult-like appeal, “while doing none of the things I thought were essential during my 20 year career in advertising and retail marketing.” Although some things are standardized across all stores, managers make many operational decisions on their own. Many managers, or “captains” of individual locations, for example, retain control over the store layout to help maintain a more local flavor. That structure, according to interviews with current Trader Joe’s staffers, has also meant wide variance in how the company is handling Covid-19. These workers described confusion about corporate communications and variations in policies about protective measures among different store locations. “It’s been a fight for safety. Getting regional managers to listen to us has been like pulling teeth,” says a Trader Joe’s employee in California. A spokesperson for Trader Joe’s says the company has provided safety and sanitation guidelines. “We were one of the first grocery stores to reduce store hours, regulate the number of customers in our stores, and implement social-distancing protocol in all stores.”

Face masks and coverings, now a ubiquitous sight on streets and among those working on front lines at grocery stores, were an early point of contention. In a March 19 email to Trader Joe’s employees, the company wrote, “We are following guidance from agencies such as the CDC—with the understanding that gloves do not replace basic hygiene such as hand-washing and that wearing gloves can create a false sense of security—which could then present greater risks than not wearing gloves.” One captain in Illinois discouraged the use of face masks, according to audio of a March 21 daily huddle meeting reviewed by Bloomberg Businessweek. That policy has since been changed at many stores—late last week, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began advising that everyone wear a cloth covering over their nose and mouth. “Crew Members can wear gloves if they choose, however gloves should not replace proper hand hygiene,” a Trader Joe’s spokesperson says. “We’ve had masks made for all of our Crew Members and we are currently having plexiglass shields installed at registers at all of our stores.”

Social distancing rules have also varied by location—many stores started to reserve early morning hours for senior customers or those who may be immunocompromised. Others have restricted the number of customers who can come in at a time and enforced socially distant queues outside the entrance. A March 21 text message reviewed by Bloomberg Businessweek between an employee and a manager at a Trader Joe’s store in the Midwest said: “There’s easily 150 customers in here. We agreed to 50.” While many customers have been respectful, some workers report customers accidentally sneezing on them or trying to go in for a thank you hug.

Other locations have been quick to impose more aggressive safety guidelines. Gregory Lofaro, who works as a crew member in Westbury, N. Y., says that his store was quick to embrace social distancing norms and mask wearing, as were many customers. “People are showing up with bandanas, gloves, masks,” Lofaro says. “One guy even showed up with an athletic cup on his face.”

As the coronavirus spread and understanding of the risks for grocery store workers increased, a petition advocating for “hazard pay” for Trader Joe’s workers gathered more than 20,000 signatures from employees and customers. On March 26, a letter from Chief Executive Officer Dan Bane addressed to “Crew, Merchants, and Mates” was posted in break rooms saying that employees would receive a modest bonus for their work. Some individual stores were doing double or nearly triple their usual volume, setting all-time sales records, according to employees. The bonus was “in recognition of the amazing job you and your store have done in serving your neighborhood during these extraordinary times,” the letter said. Individual employees’ bonuses varied depending on the hours worked between Feb. 24 and March 22, according to the letter. “As long as this challenge remains, we will continue to pay monthly bonuses that recognize your efforts.” All told, according to several employees, it worked out to about $300 before taxes for full-time employees and about half that for part-time workers. (The increase is equivalent to an additional $2 an hour, according to a Trader Joe’s spokesperson.) “The bonus is a slap in the face,” one employee says.

In recent weeks, several Trader Joe’s have closed their doors after reports of workers testing positive for Covid-19, including six high-traffic locations in New York. That’s concurrent with the March 21 guidelines from the CDC for businesses, which include having sick employees stay home and closing and disinfecting spaces if Covid-19 cases are found in a workplace. However, that has not been the case in other locations, according to many employees. A store in San Diego county remained open despite a confirmed case of Covid-19, according to interviews with employees familiar with the store, because the employee who tested positive hadn’t worked for seven days.

“Our actions vary by situation, and depending on the date range of potential exposure, can include notifying the public and Crew Members, and closing our stores for additional, thorough cleaning and sanitization,” a company spokesperson says. One Trader Joe’s employee in Illinois says he had symptoms in February and was sick for a couple of weeks. While he took some unpaid days off, he eventually went back in, needing the money. As of March 2, Trader Joe’s is providing a week of additional paid sick time to “crew members who have any symptoms of respiratory illness or are feeling ill,” a spokesperson says. “In addition we’re providing up to two weeks of additional paid sick time for anyone required to quarantine due to coronavirus.” Employees report similar circumstances without closures at the USC Village location in Los Angeles and the City Point location in Brooklyn.

An email reviewed by Bloomberg Businessweek to employees at the City Point location explained that “Because the exposure was 21 days ago, the CDC does not recommend cleaning beyond what we have already been doing. We have since had the store professionally cleaned, and we should continue to clean the store with continued focus on high touch areas like registers, carts, doors, and bathrooms. Please monitor your health for symptoms, and if you are not feeling well, please do not come to work and contact your healthcare provider.”

Getting access to Covid-19 tests remains a challenge. One employee says that getting a test “is almost impossible to do, several of us having been turned away from testing centers like the one at Brooklyn Hospital.” One employee, who experienced symptoms says, “I did have to return to work a week earlier than I would have liked potentially exposing staff and hundreds of customers. Truthfully at this point if you come in contact with anyone at our location it’s safe to assume that you’ve been exposed.”

Even if employees are reporting stress behind the scenes, a spokesperson for the company says it has received “countless emails and phone calls from customers expressing their gratitude for the great lengths our stores are going to, to keep them safe and making their shopping experience as enjoyable as possible.” Among the grateful is Fran Abramovitz, a regular at her Trader Joe’s in Chicago and founder of a group for Trader Joe’s fans on Facebook. “I think they should really have more pay during these times,” Abramovitz says. Immunocompromised with multiple sclerosis, she has relied on the store’s pre-sliced vegetables and says that she has been fortunate to have neighbors who have run to the local store for her in recent weeks. She also tries to keep the store’s brand of Stevia on hand for her diabetic husband. “Someone who is working and putting themselves out there while we’re all hiding in our houses?” she says. “They make the store what it is. I commend them.”

To contact the author of this story:
Mary Pilon in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Silvia Killingsworth at skillingswo2@bloomberg.net

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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