BY ANGÉLICA ACEVEDO
An employee at the only Trader Joe’s in Queens said there are five other employees who tested positive for COVID-19 — but management only informed them of the cases weeks after knowing they were infected.
The Trader Joe’s employee, who asked to remain anonymous in fear of losing their job, said their captain sent the crew an email on Wednesday, April 15, with vague information of the positive cases.
The email, shared with QNS, focused on an employee who tested positive but emphasized the employee had no symptoms while they worked, and that they were not at work for 11 days prior to testing positive. The captain then briefly mentioned that four other employees, who were on voluntary leave for three weeks, had also tested positive.
The anonymous Trader Joe’s employee noted that the captain did not mention a date or indication that the store would be closed in order to clean.
“They’re just not giving a real time frame for these cases,” the employee said. “They should have told us these things when they happened. We’re all adults. If things are bad, we all have thick skin and we’ll deal with it. If someone’s sick, tell us they’re sick.”
The employee, who’s worked at Trader Joe’s for several years, mentioned the store was closed for what management called a “full store cleaning” on Sunday, April 5, in addition to periodic overnight cleanings to prevent full store closures — including one on April 15 in “high-traffic areas” of the Rego Park store.
Prior to the April 15 email from the captain, the employee said another co-worker “happened to look” on the official Trader Joe’s website and learned the Rego Park location at 9030 Metropolitan Ave. will temporarily close on Thursday, April 23.
“My managers didn’t come up and say, ‘Hey crew we’re closing!’ in one of our huddles,” the employee said. “It’s unfortunate to hear. [Trader] Joe’s hasn’t been proactive; they’ve been reactive. It’s dangerous for everyone who works there and for our customers. They’re putting people’s lives at risk.”
The national supermarket chain recently made headlines not only because of the viral images of long lines with customers waiting to shop — at the Rego Park store, for instance, the employee said customers wait up to two hours in a line that passes their parking lot and extends from Trotting Course Lane to Metropolitan Avenue all the way to Woodhaven Boulevard, rain or shine — but also because of workers expressing concerns that not enough is being done to keep them safe.
The Rego Park employee recalled how workers had to fight to get management to allow them to use gloves and how they sent some people home for wearing them, even after COVID-19 was named a pandemic in March.
The employee said management worried people would feel uncomfortable seeing the crew, known for their top-notch and chipper customer service, wearing gloves or masks.
“Now that [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo said we all have to wear masks, that’s all flipped,” the employee said.
Trader Joe’s began enforcing employees and customers to wear masks as of Thursday, April 16. Additionally, they have implemented wellness checks prior to workers’ shifts to ensure they don’t inadvertently expose co-workers; and reduced store hours; suspended the use of reusable bags. Trader Joe’s is installing temporary plexiglass barriers at all cash registers and enforcing social distancing measures.
They’ve also increased paid sick leave and have allotted bonuses, after a group of employees began a petition calling for hazard pay during the pandemic. The Rego Park employee said initially, they gave them $2 per every hour they worked based on a month period from February to March.
“But bonuses are taxed at about 45 percent in New York City,” the employee said. “Some people received $150, or as little as $81 added to their checks. There wasn’t a single person who was happy.”
Now, the employee said the company has another method of giving workers bonuses during the pandemic that won’t be taxed at the bonus rate.
But with that petition, organized by “Trader Joe’s Union Coalition,” the company grew concerned of possible unionizing efforts — so much so that it prompted a two-page letter from Trader Joe’s CEO Dan Bane, shared with QNS, in which he calls their demands “a distraction.” However, Bane added that once the pandemic is over, they’ll have a union vote at any store if 30 percent of crew members want it.
But the Rego Park employee believed the petition didn’t call for a union, and that unionizing at Trader Joe’s ultimately “doesn’t make sense” due to the benefits the company already offers their employees.
“I remember during our team huddles, managers would tell us, ‘None of you are forced to be here, if you don’t want to be,’” the Rego Park employee said.
But the employee noted that for many Trader Joe’s workers, this is their only source of income, so even if they do want to stay at home or self-isolate, they can’t.
“Prior to COVID-19, you would come to work if you had a migraine, fever, broke a pinky,” the employee said. “And they’re right, we aren’t forced to be there, but what’s the other option. I can’t afford to miss a day of work.”
The employee said that despite all of this, they believe Trader Joe’s is a great place to work. They just want to start a conversation, and have management be more transparent in a time when clear communication is most important.
“This whole experience has been very strange,” the Rego Park employee said. “It’s even hard to wrap my brain around the idea that we’re on the frontlines. But that’s why they need to give us the appropriate tools. Give us more than we need, even. This company is making millions every day. If we have to close the store one or three times to clean, or whatever, then that should be fine.”
Several stores in New York City and the country have also temporarily closed for cleaning. The Rego Park employee said the closing dates listed on their website disappear after the date passes.
Trader Joe’s did not respond to QNS’ requests for comment.
This story first appeared on QNS.com.