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With their Hawaiian shirts, free samples, and friendly vibes, Trader Joe’s stores can seem more laid-back than other supermarkets.
But employees working during the coronavirus pandemic fear for their health and the safety of customers.
“People are generally scared. There’s a lot of people feeling that the company is not responding in a responsible fashion,” said one employee of the Trader Joe’s in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, who like several people in this article asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job.
More than half a dozen employees told BuzzFeed News that employees of at least four store locations in New York and Washington, DC, have tested positive for the coronavirus — but the locations have remained open with workers expected to come in as normal.
Like other supermarkets across the country, Trader Joe’s stores are staying open as essential businesses to ensure people can still get food and supplies during the pandemic. But employees say guidelines around store safety have varied; some stores have brought in professionals for a deep clean after COVID-19 cases were discovered, but other stores have not done so because of the amount of time that had passed since the sick staffer had worked.
Workers also fear that even if the store itself is not contaminated, they may have been infected by a sick colleague and might be unwittingly passing it on to each other and customers. All this is worsened by communication from their managers and corporate that the workers say has been poor and haphazard, leaving them feeling unsafe and undervalued.
Two employees of the Cobble Hill store said one of their coworkers tested positive for COVID-19, and two more have been diagnosed as suspected cases by a doctor. The store remains open and has not closed for professional cleaning, they said.
For over a week, store managers did not inform staff of the case at any of their morning “huddles,” the employees said. Staffers only found out their coworker had tested positive “through the grapevine.”
On Monday night, the manager told staff in an email, seen by BuzzFeed News, about the two colleagues who had been diagnosed by doctors. The email does not mention the third aforementioned case, which was an employee who said in a Facebook post she had tested positive.
“Because the crew member [diagnosed by a doctor] was in the store 9 days ago, the CDC does not recommend cleaning beyond what we have already been doing,” the email states.
The email does not advise staff members to quarantine themselves due to possible exposure. The staffers work in close quarters and are unable to follow CDC guidelines that recommend workers stay 6 feet away from each other. The incubation period for COVID-19 can last up to 14 days, meaning store employees are still at risk for developing symptoms they could pass on to each other and customers.
Employees have been permitted to take unpaid time off if they are concerned about contracting the virus — but doing so isn't feasible for most of them, with bills to pay and no end in sight for the pandemic.
Company spokesperson Kenya Friend-Daniel told BuzzFeed News all Trader Joe’s staffers have been granted seven extra days of paid sick leave and that the company is “providing up to two weeks of paid sick leave to all Crew Members quarantined for or diagnosed with the coronavirus.”
Additionally, corporate policy now allows for workers to wear gloves and masks — something many store managers were previously prohibiting. Friend-Daniel said plexiglass is being installed at store registers as well.
Sammy Almlah, 26, who works at a Trader Joe’s in Westbury, New York, told BuzzFeed News two of his coworkers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least two more people have been experiencing symptoms.
On Monday night, the Westbury store manager sent out a nearly identical email to the one sent to Cobble Hill staffers, which stated that the employee had last worked seven days ago, so they would not need to take additional cleaning measures.
“I feel nervous going in because of my asthma and the fact that my girlfriend is immunocompromised,” Almlah said. “I can’t afford to not work unless I’d be getting paid time off, but that only will happen if I get COVID-19.”
Almlah said he was confused why his store didn’t close for cleaning, while a nearby store in Plainview closed for cleaning two days after a worker tested positive.
Friend-Daniel, the company spokesperson, said Trader Joe’s works “closely with local, state and federal health officials and base all of our decisions on their guidance.”
“The health and safety of our Crew and customers remains our top priority through this crisis,” Friend-Daniel said.
As the pandemic has grown, Trader Joe’s has implemented “enhanced safety and sanitation measures,” Friend-Daniel said.
In some cases, stores have temporarily closed in order to undergo a deep clean after employees have tested positive for the coronavirus. “We take a hyper careful approach by closing stores in these instances, and we do not reopen a store until we are satisfied that further intense cleaning and sanitation has been completed,” Friend-Daniel said.
The Trader Joe’s in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood briefly closed over the weekend after four workers tested positive over the course of two weeks, one worker there told BuzzFeed News.
The Chelsea staffers were not told who exactly had tested positive, due to privacy regulations, but were told what shifts those people had worked.
“I was afraid because I work these shifts, these morning shifts, with some of the crew that tested positive,” the Chelsea worker said. “The store is only so big, so I was like, was I in close contact with this person? Should I take a leave and quarantine myself to see what happens?”
The worker at the Chelsea location said she lives with her grandmother and is afraid of getting her sick. “It’s anxiety-inducing,” she said. “I try to be as careful as I can be, but honestly it’s so hard.”
One employee who works at the Trader Joe’s in the Glover Park neighborhood of Washington, DC, told BuzzFeed News that staffers are “not encouraged to tell the customers” about positive or suspected cases in the store.
“They said to keep an awareness of what we say in front of the customers ... and if a customer asks, to tell a manager to talk to them,” she said.
But Friend-Daniel said news about store closures and positive or suspected COVID-19 cases is being shared on the Trader Joe’s website. No locations are currently closed, she said, and no mentions of any previous closures can be found on the company website. There are also no announcements listed for positive or suspected COVID-19 cases in stores.
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In Hartsdale, New York, one Trader Joe’s employee has tested positive for the coronavirus, and another has been diagnosed as a suspected case by their doctor, according to one current and former employee.
Erica Mildner worked at the Hartsdale store until she quit March 20 after being sent home for asking to wear gloves, which previously were not explicitly permitted by the corporate office. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is now investigating her case.
Mildner said she does not trust Trader Joe’s guidelines regarding whether a store is closed for a deep cleaning.
“We all know it takes a few days to feel symptoms, get access to a test, and then get the results of that test,” Mildner said. “The CDC regulations that [managers] list [in their emails] basically say [they] understand the virus lasts on surfaces for two to three days at most. So based on the last date that the [sick] employee worked, that’s how we’ll decide whether or not to close the store.”
Essentially, by the time a sick employee can get a positive test back or a diagnosis from a doctor, that period of time in which the disease can be passed from touching surfaces has already ended.
But this does not take into account the coworkers who may have already touched those surfaces and contracted the virus and who may get sick and pass the virus along even further.
“It’s an impossible formula,” Mildner said.
Earlier in March, Trader Joe’s announced all its workers would be granted a bonus due to sales skyrocketing amid the pandemic, which comes out to about an additional $2 per hour before taxes.
The bonus was announced after workers started a petition — which to date has been signed by over 20,000 people — calling for Trader Joe’s to pay its employees hazard pay at the rate of time and a half.
“The bonus, I think, was a way of attempting to shut us up about hazard pay,” said Almlah, the Westbury staffer. “I don’t think the check was worth the risk of being there. If anything it makes me more upset that they believe this is sufficient.”
The DC employee said her bonus for a month’s work came out to about $160, which she said feels inadequate considering the risk she’s putting herself and her partner in.
“A lot of us don’t feel safe,” the DC employee said. “Everyone’s really anxious.”
On Sunday, her store manager said in an email that one employee had tested positive for the coronavirus — and that because the employee had last worked 11 days ago, business would continue as usual.
Despite her fears, the DC employee said she has no choice but to keep working until she gets sick so she can take paid sick leave.
“I need to eat and I have rent,” she said. “I’m terrified of not working. I wake up anxious because I know it’s something that I have to do.”
After the company was contacted by BuzzFeed News for comment, the Trader Joe's website was updated to list stores temporarily closed for COVID-19 cleaning.