Trader Joe’s coronavirus benefits “insufficient,” union says

The coalition that’s working to organize a union at Trader Joe’s, the quirky grocery store on which many young urbanites depend for reasonably priced goods, says the management’s allowance for paid sick leave during the coronavirus outbreak is “insufficient.”

This response follows a memo that was sent to the store’s employees, which detailed that “Crew Members”–TJ’s lingo for staff–can stay home if they feel unwell and should remain away from work for at least 24 hours after symptoms subside. The guidelines are set in place until April 15, for now, and managers–“Captains” in TJ’s-speak–may “approve reimbursement of time off for employees who are unable to work due to respiratory illness.”

AR, or absence reserve, is another instance of Joe’s jargon, referring to sick leave and vacation time that it offers in a combined bundle. It’s a particular sticking point for the Coalition for a Trader Joe’s Union (CTJU). A representative of the group who asked not to be named explained to Fast Company that Trader Joe’s isn’t offering additional sick time, but rather the ability to refund already used AR. The representative particularly wanted to clarify confusion about the new policy. “AR needs to already be available to be refunded, but will not be provided beyond what the worker has already accrued.” Update: The CTJU tweeted March 7 a clarification from management, that Trader Joe’s will pay workers who are out sick for previously scheduled shifts, up to one week, and that that pay would not be deducted from workers’ accrued AR (combined sick leave and vacation time).

The representative said the coalition was concerned with the discretionary nature of the policy; sick leave is to be determined by managers of individual stores, and that “opens up potential for the biases and discrimination that already plague workers.” The memo adds that staff missing 7 days will have their personal cases reviewed by HR (the government is recommending 14-day quarantine for people who test positive), which the coalition finds troublesome. “It is the position of the CTJU that sick workers should be able to focus on their wellness,” the representative said, “not on fighting for their wages or doing mental gymnastics to figure out if they can financially survive an illness.”

Like gyms, schools, and airports, grocery stores are yet another example of cramped quarters with the potential for the spreading of COVID-19. That’s especially true in cities where the stores tend to be small and crowded during peak times, when customers play bumper cars with shopping carts just to nab a bag of sriracha crinkle-cut chips.

The CTJU noted the busy nature of the stores, especially lately, when shoppers are pouring in to stock up on pantry items, driving up the odds that staff contract the illness. “It is a numbers game and the numbers are against us,” the representative said. The CTJU asked that customers should try to visit the store during slower times, namely earlier in the day and midweek.

The memo from Trader Joe’s management addressed other issues, including the demo stations, which offer customers free samples of the brand’s foods, while they wait in the notoriously long lines. Samples will now be served directly to customers, rather than being placed on large sharing platters, and will be served with cutlery, so customers don’t have to pick with their hands.

It also advises hygienic best practices for employees, including the use of disinfectant wipes, washing hands for 20 seconds, and coughing or sneezing into elbows rather than hands. The coalition rep addressed these general guidelines, telling Fast Company, “No matter how much we wash our hands, we can’t control customers in a crowded store sneezing on us.” They also suggested that Trader Joe’s should extend healthcare to workers who may not be able to afford care if they are contaminated. We’ve reached out to Trader Joe’s for comment, and we’ll update this article if we hear back.

When asked, the CTJU would not share what stage of organizing it’s currently in, but it appears the coalition is still working to gather steam for a union. It began tweeting on March 1 under the handle @TraderJoesUnion, with the initial post reading, “It says a lot that in the year 2020 the username ‘TraderJoesUnion’ remained untouched.” The Twitter description says: “A coalition of workers born from the ethos of yesterday fighting today for a better tomorrow.”

The representative emphasized that the coronavirus hazard is simply a furtherance of the “systemic” issues that already exist between management and workers, such as the unfair clumping of sick leave and vacation time into the single “AR” bucket.

Especially amid the COVID-19 concerns–but really in general–the rep said: “We strongly encourage Trader Joe’s to expand their sick time benefits to alleviate confusion and worry.”

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