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Food Fight

Deemed “essential,” grocery store workers are fighting to be treated that way

By now, the sight of ravaged grocery store shelves across the United States has become grimly familiar—and those right-wing memes about food shopping in Venezuela are suddenly as scarce as hen’s teeth—as the country struggles to contain the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic. Grocery stores have become ground zero in the battle over social distancing and the site of endless disheartening displays of misguided resource hoarding. Worse, millions of underpaid and overworked grocery store workers are now on the receiving end of the public’s panic over the pandemic—as well as their germs.

Not only does the nature of their work put all grocery store employees—from cashiers to floor workers to those in the warehouse—at high risk of exposure to the virus, they’re also forced to deal with customers’ increasingly nasty attitudes, as supplies run out and shelves sit empty. This added emotional labor is, of course, unpaid, and many hourly workers are braving such conditions without the protection of a union or a living wage, to say nothing of paid sick leave or hazard pay. Through it all, there’s continued pressure coming from above for them to stay smiling as the world around them crumbles. These essential workers are being treated as disposable. As one told me yesterday, “It’s hard to feel like an essential worker when you don’t have health care.”

Even people who work at supposedly more progressive chains like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods (at least until its Amazon takeover) are anxious, tired, and afraid, and they certainly aren’t being paid enough to deal with these extraordinary circumstances—especially when the hand sanitizer runs out, and emotions at the cash register run high.

“None of us ever expected to be emergency workers; the idea of an ‘essential worker’ is a totally new concept that no grocery store bag boy considers when they drop off an application,” a current Whole Foods worker who prefers to stay anonymous told me. “There’s all of this rhetoric around how we’re just as important as the doctors, and yes, that’s true, but we’re getting paid way less, and medical workers have a little bit more of an idea of the risks that they are setting themselves up for. . . . We’re not used to this shit.”

Over its fifty-three years of existence, California-based grocery chain Trader Joe’s has built an empire on its eco-friendly, health-conscious offerings, cheerful “neighborhood” aesthetic, and most importantly, its relative affordability. The company has become a favorite among cash-strapped millennials, and has been heaped with plaudits for its stated commitment to social responsibility, as well as the fact that it offers its hourly workers health care. It regularly sits near the top of the list when publications rank the country’s best places to work. However, as is so often the case with “progressive” workplaces, Trader Joe’s isn’t all Hawaiian shirts and cookie butter.

The reality of life for a Trader Joe’s “crew member” is far harsher. For one, the company has a history of union-busting practices from which it has not wavered, even as wave after wave of organizing campaigns hit the retail sector. Multiple current and former workers I spoke with reported witnessing racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and sexual harassment on the job, and of management doing nothing to address their concerns. As one person who recently quit their job at a New York City Trader Joe’s explained, “People already tend to view service workers as subhuman, and to a bigot, a transgender service worker is somehow a blasphemy they can’t wrap their heads around. . . . I wasn’t actually safe.”

The lack of safety and support in the workplace is even more of a problem now that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has thrust Trader Joe’s workers and their fellow grocery store workers onto the front lines of a public health crisis. As a current TJ’s worker based in a Manhattan store put it, “Trader Joes does not give a fuck about human beings; at the end of the day, this is just progressive-themed corporate retail without a soul.”

As is so often the case with “progressive” workplaces, Trader Joe’s isn’t all Hawaiian shirts and cookie butter.

That all became apparent when the Coalition for a Trader Joe’s Union (CTJU) went public with a petition on March 16 that called on the company to furnish its workers with hazard pay. By then, the pandemic was in full swing, but the company was still refusing to allow workers to take even the most basic precautions to keep themselves and customers safe. Management actively discouraged workers from wearing protective gloves until public pressure forced them to clarify their stance (which, according to this letter they sent out on March 22, appears to be . . . not having a stance), and, per the workers I spoke to, masks are still not permitted. Trader Joe’s workers weren’t alone in circulating this kind of petition, either. Thousands of workers at Fred Meyer and Publix have also publicly called for hazard pay, with mixed results.

After the Trader Joe’s petition reached 10,000 signatures, the company responded by setting up a “special bonus pool” to be divided among employees. According to the Coalition for a Trader Joe’s Union, it amounted to a temporary raise of less than $2/hour. The CTJU were less than enthused. “We believe the bonus was created to undercut the CTJU’s demand for hazard pay,” the coalition said via email. “It created confusion about our campaign and some easy positive press for the company, but it quickly backfired. Not only did the CTJU get credit for pushing the company to provide a bonus, but it made workers realize the company can provide hazard pay at time and a half and are simply choosing not to.”

The Manhattan store worker I spoke with characterized the bonus pool as a bare minimum response “to prevent a Trader Riot.” As they told me, “No one has seen any of this on their paycheck yet, and we have to wonder if we will even live long enough to.” At this point, the bare minimum simply won’t cut it. “Many [workers] are in a crisis, simultaneously very afraid to come to work or to quit their ‘essential work’ job,for fear of losing insurance as well as income during this pandemic,” they explained.

It’s a brutal catch-22 that hurts workers and customers and benefits only the company, which has been raking in eye-watering profits since the first round of panic-buying began. At in-store meetings, the Manhattan worker says, “everyone gets called a hero ad nauseam . . . but any attempt to speak critically about the situation or request better protection is met with a loaded, backhanded reminder that we are ‘lucky’ to even have work right now.”

Workers at individual Trader Joe’s stores—which are run semi-autonomously by store “Captains”—continue to receive mixed messages at a time when taking anything but the broadest precautions to protect them is the picture of corporate negligence. “They’ve been telling us to not come to work if we’re sick, and that’s nice, but who’s going to pay the bills?” another former TJ’s worker in New York City told me. “I worked with people taking care of their sick or dying parents, single mothers with disabled children, people who were coping with being houseless, and these are the people we are leaving behind in all this. Trader Joe’s needs to change, or there will be casualties. And there will be a lot of them.”

Trader Joe’s isn’t the only crunchy liberal favorite that has been coming under fire from its frightened and frustrated workforce. Whole Foods—another grocery chain with a notorious allergy to unions—has also failed its workers during this fraught time. The company has taken only incremental measures to protect them, like promising workers up to two weeks of sick leave contingent on a positive COVID-19 test at a time when the vast majority of civilians cannot access them, and offering a $2 hourly wage increase through April. Meanwhile, the chain’s parent company is literally owned by the richest man in the world.

“Besides the sad irony that they are buying all this food we can’t afford, and we’re helping them do it, the crowds were huge, and the lines were going out the door, which is obviously a health risk to both the workers and the customers,” said one Chicago-based Whole Foods worker, who began showing coronavirus symptoms last week and has been self-isolating without pay. Prior to her illness, she worked long, hectic shifts at the beginning of the pandemic and saw the worst of the initial panic buying. “I think Whole Foods got hit more than any other grocery store chain because the people who are hoarding on that scale are the people with the means to do so. . . . The affluent liberal facade really fell away very quickly in the past couple of weeks, and it is becoming very clear who is serving and who is being served.”

“I’m a barista and our coffee bar is still open, even though every coffee bar in my city has shut down, so am I really an essential worker?” she continued. “I’m making cappuccinos for people who have absolute panic in their eyes.”

Back in January, Whole Foods cut health care benefits for 1,900 of its part-time workers, a decision that now appears especially cruel. As the Chicago worker told me, “Any kind of argument about money saving or profitability just seems totally absurd when we’re owned by Jeff Bezos. There’s no rationalization for not giving your workers health insurance during a pandemic.”

“We are doing our jobs. We are trying to survive this, just like all of you.”

A group called Whole Worker has since launched a public campaign to hold Whole Foods accountable. They have organized a sickout today in order to bring attention to their demands, which include guaranteed paid sick leave for workers who self-quarantine, hazard pay, proper sanitation procedures, and reinstating the health care benefits that were lost in January. Since Whole Foods has temporarily relaxed its attendance policy, those who participate in the sickout can do so without fear of reprisal, which is a huge advantage when dealing with a company so adamantly opposed to collective organizing.

Matthew Hunt, a former Whole Foods worker who says he was fired in 2017 for trying to start a union, spent several years with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) before reconnecting with some of his former colleagues and starting Whole Worker. Hunt, who lives in Queens, theorizes that the company is actively trying to cover up the number of employees who have already been exposed. “They’re just protecting their profits. That’s what they do, so I wouldn’t expect anything less from the employing class, especially Jeff fucking Bezos,” he says. “They want people to either quit or to show up to work. They really don’t give a shit about employees.”

“Every policy change and measure to protect us that has come out from Whole Foods has come way too late, that’s why we’re trying to speed things up and force their hand with a work stoppage,” explained one of the sickout’s other lead organizers, a current employee who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation. “The sickout was planned pretty quickly, given the immediacy of what’s going on. . . . There’s been an incredible little strike wave this week, and I would like to see all these disparate movements come together, because there’s a lot of overlap in what we’re asking for.”

As for what customers can do to show solidarity during these difficult times, the workers I spoke with suggest bringing your own bags and bagging your own groceries to cut down on contact; being patient; and being kind to the beleaguered workers who are risking it all to ensure you and your family can eat. (Hunt also asks people to boycott Whole Foods today, and to “troll Jeff Bezos on Twitter,” which is good advice for any day of the week.) Ultimately, these workers need people to understand that they are doing their best while up against impossible odds. They’re humans, not robots, and if they’re going to be classified as essential workers, they need to be treated in kind.

“We are not heroes,” said one worker. “We are doing our jobs. We are trying to survive this, just like all of you.”