When a Trader Joe’s worker died on April 6 after contracting Covid-19 in early March, some of the chain’s employees didn’t learn about his death from their managers — they learned about it on Reddit. The first pandemic-related passing to hit the Trader Joe’s workforce was the subject of a post to the TJCrew subreddit, an online community for the store’s employees. As grocery, big-box store, and pharmacy workers have morphed into America’s front lines, employees say this kind of information trickle-down is not unusual.
“According to my mates, [Trader Joe’s store leaders said] he was legally considered a senior citizen and had previous underlying health conditions,” wrote the poster. “I hope everyone is staying healthy and safe. Much love to all my TJ’s family.”
This has become a new reality during the coronavirus era: Essential workers are relying on insular, employees-only online communities like r/TJCrew for vital information. The Goods interviewed seven different employees at stores including Walmart, Target, Trader Joe’s, and Kroger, each of whom spoke about a chaotic situation at work and their dwindling faith that management is keeping them safe.
Some claimed that corporate offices have chosen to offload key sanitation issues — Should workers be wearing gloves? How many customers should be allowed in the store? — to individual, often overwhelmed and uninformed store managers. Some claimed that corporate-issued directives sometimes contradict previous rules, adding to a culture of confusion. Others are anxious that protective supplies like hand sanitizer are running low and have doubts hygienic requirements will be met during the course of this pandemic.
Through all of that, essential employees have leaned on exclusive, semi-anonymous groups on Facebook and Reddit where they can share intel with their coworkers as the coronavirus turns their world upside down. That resource has been crucial: One Kroger employee in Arkansas told me she didn’t even know the company would be offering hazard pay until she read about it on a private Facebook group. “I learn more from this group than anywhere else,” she says. It doesn’t sound like that will be changing anytime soon.
Online communities for grocery store employees existed long before the pandemic swept the nation. Both the Trader Joe’s subreddit and the Kroger Facebook group date back to the summer of 2013, and workers have for years used them to compare notes under the nose of management. But the conversation in these groups has grown much more serious as grocery store labor has put these employees in the line of fire, and today, the community discourse is almost solely focused on the pandemic. Travis Boothe, a pharmacy technician at a West Virginia Kroger, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and a frequent poster in the employee Facebook group, believes that now more than ever his colleagues need a place to talk outside the earshot of their bosses.
“With the state of business and capitalism in this country, there’s been a real crackdown on the flow of information. So these communities are really crucial to cutting through that. It’s an asymmetric form of organization,” says Boothe. “There’s no control of this [Facebook group] by the company itself. They can have all sorts of policies in place to limit social media or the ways we interact with the public as Kroger employees, but they don’t change the fact that we have these rights under the National Labor Relations Act. These communities are one great example of that.”
Jasmine Long, a 21-year-old Walmart personal shopper in Arkansas, feels the same way about her Walmart employee Facebook group. She doesn’t know what to expect when she goes into work every day to pick up groceries for her customers. Her responsibilities — including the maximum amount of orders Long is allowed to take — seem to change by the hour.
“They dropped our cap down one day and shortened our hours. And the next day they opened us up fully again and raised our cap, so we have more orders than we had before,” says Long. “[We] just come in every day and go with the flow. There are supposed to be people at the door keeping track of people coming in, but I don’t think anyone knows what the limit is.”
Sometimes, says Long, she brings posts from her Walmart group directly to her manager, especially when she finds some contradictory information and needs a straight answer. “When they changed the hours for personal shoppers, people were going on there and saying, ‘Oh, we’re not going to be open at these times,’ or, ‘We’re not going to be open at these times,’ or, ‘We’re still open all day,” she explains.
Casey Staheli, senior manager of national media relations at Walmart, highlighted the company’s online newsroom, where updates on storewide coronavirus policy are posted daily, as evidence of Walmart’s pursuit of clarity during the pandemic. “We will continue taking any and all measures necessary to ensure the well-being of our associates and customers,” says Staheli. “Those include delivering updated procedures to associates through videos and photos, as well as schedules for cleaning to help provide clear guidance.”
Long also tells me that the group doesn’t serve a purely utilitarian purpose. Sometimes, she uses it for emotional support. Only a select number of people know what it’s like to be on the front lines of a pandemic. Long feels some solidarity when she reads their stories.
“It’s nice to have people know what you’re going through. Nobody feels afraid to hold back. People say what they want,” she says. “It’s nice to know that other people are on the same page as me and are just as freaked out as I am.”
Richard, a Trader Joe’s employee who participates in these communities and asks to remain anonymous, says the online discussion between grocery store workers has occasionally sparked mass dissent. He told me that as the coronavirus began to pick up steam in February, he was asked to not wear plastic gloves in front of the customers. Richard says he isn’t 100 percent sure where that note came from, but he believes it was his regional manager. The thinking from his bosses, remembers Richard, was that gloves “looked dirty after you’ve used them.” An online outcry from Trader Joe’s employees followed, and management clarified their gloves policy, according to an internal memo posted on the TJCrew subreddit on March 21. It stated that Trader Joe’s never had a strict policy on gloves and instead “applied our usual approach of talking to Crew Members about why gloves aren’t beneficial in keeping them safe and what message our use of gloves sends to our customers.” Richard says this moment was emblematic of a company that was still trying to grapple with the realities of the pandemic.
“Everything is hectic and changing nonstop, and the feeling is Trader Joe’s is trying to get away with as little changes and responses as possible until their hands are forced,” says Richard. “That’s why it’s so fluid.”
Tyler, another Trader Joe’s employee who frequently contributes to the subreddit and asks to remain anonymous, says that he always wore gloves when he worked the register to keep his hands clean from the juices that leak out of the raw chicken packaging. It was only after the coronavirus gained a foothold in America that Tyler was suddenly being scrutinized.
“Nobody had a problem with the gloves before Covid-19 became a real problem in my area,” says Tyler. “Up until [late March], we were not allowed to wear gloves or masks. The managers would always say things like, ‘Well, that might make the customers uncomfortable.’ If I was a customer at my store, I would be far more comfortable seeing employees with [protective equipment] than without because they are handling food. Now, we are allowed to wear gloves, but last I heard, we can only wear masks after hours. We are out of hand sanitizer and low on gloves. Nobody knows what is going on.” Since this initial interview, Vox followed up with Tyler on April 26, who confirmed that he is now required to wear a mask during his shift at Trader Joe’s.
Kenya Friend-Daniel, PR director at Trader Joe’s, responded to these claims: “We have continued to inform Crew Members that while they can wear gloves if they choose to, in line with CDC guidelines and recommendations, proper and frequent hand washing and sanitizing is one of the best ways to protect against Covid-19.”
But Richard believes that inaction from corporate has created a web of inconsistent policies across Trader Joe’s locations. Some stores, he says, have offered paid sick leave to employees who are merely “stressed out” about the virus. Other stores have restricted access to that same time off exclusively for those who have a confirmed case of Covid-19. Richard says he doesn’t feel comfortable going to work but can’t afford to take time off, and says that employees’ fates are tied to the proclivities of their particular manager.
“Some managers reacted [to the pandemic] immediately, but if you were stuck with a manager who didn’t even believe that the virus was getting out of hand, well, you were out of luck,” he says.
Sometimes, says Tyler, that inconsistent messaging can trickle down into genuine crisis situations. In mid-March, he says his managers informed him that one of his coworkers had tested positive for the coronavirus. But his location didn’t close down, says Tyler, because the worker in question hadn’t been in the store “for a few days.” That discretion didn’t work; Tyler says there’s already been another case of Covid-19 at his location. “What confuses me more is that there are other stores across the country closed even if crew members who tested positive hadn’t been in for a while,” he says. “The company does not seem like it is taking this situation or its employees’ health seriously.”
Friend-Daniel, responding to Tyler’s claims, stated that Trader Joe’s is “following and exceeding recommendations from the CDC and health officials.”
“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,” she continued. “We take a hypercareful 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. We recently began conducting additional, proactive cleanings of stores in some of the areas hardest hit by Covid-19.”
Richard tells me that the TJCrew subreddit has been an indispensable support system during the pandemic. “We only know what’s going on in our store, and that depends on how transparent the manager is,” he says. By following the conversation on Reddit, he’s able to keep track of everything: confirmed coronavirus cases in Trader Joe’s buildings as well as the impromptu policies that have filtered into the other locations. It offers a vital sense of clarity during a disorienting time. “I’ve learned a lot about changes that were happening to the stores long before they actually began in our store,” Richard adds.
Tyler tells me that he thinks the current dissatisfaction with Trader Joe’s management and the burgeoning whisper networks on the internet might open the door for a fully voiced unionization effort on the other end of the pandemic. More than 20,000 Trader Joe’s employees signed a petition demanding hazard pay. The company acquiesced with what Richard described as a “tiny” bonus program, equivalent to a taxed $2 an hour for his shifts over the previous month. “It felt more like ‘shut up’ money than ‘thank you’ money,” he said. Right now, one of the most active posts on the r/TJCrew subreddit is dedicated to the germ of a Trader Joe’s union — something that was hard to imagine just a few months ago — so that the workers could bargain for more than a stipend.
This is a shock for those who’ve dedicated themselves to organizing a labor movement in the American retail sector. Adam Ryan, a 31-year-old Target employee in Virginia who has piloted the Target Workers Unite advocacy group since 2018, has noticed a burst of activity on his website and Facebook page in the past month. Like every other essential business in the country, Ryan says Target employees feel underwater and out of the loop. When I first interviewed him on April 8, Ryan said he’d been promised plexiglass sneeze guards and protective masks, neither of which had materialized. When I checked back with Ryan on April 21, he said the protective gear did finally arrive the week before. A Target representative chalked up any delays to “the process of rolling them out.”
The Target Workers Unite Facebook page recently highlighted a flyer allegedly distributed by management with instructions on how to create your own masks out of a “bandana, dishcloths, or socks” as a stopgap solution during the pandemic. Ryan hopes that maybe, as the outrage roils and the communication between workers continues to solidify as a collective front, he might have a popular movement on his hands.
“I think it’s causing an upsurge in labor activity and worker activity. I don’t think that’s going away anytime soon,” says Ryan. “Normally, if someone has an issue with their jobs, they’ll just quit. But now, jobs are scarce so folks can no longer quit. I think that gives us labor organizers an opportunity to say, ‘Here’s an alternative to address these problems.’”
Richard, on the other hand, isn’t interested in a unionization effort. Right now, he believes that management will eventually turn things around and present a greater capacity for leadership and empathy than they’ve demonstrated in recent weeks. But even he admits that, in the future, he’s not sure if the pristine, family-oriented image the company sells to its workforce will ever feel authentic again. He remembers a contest Trader Joe’s held in February, where stores were asked to move 100 typically low-selling products a day for the entire month. The reward? A pizza party and a T-shirt. That wasn’t much then, and it feels particularly hollow now.
“Some will forever be sipping that TJ’s Kool-Aid, but a lot feel angered and betrayed by the company’s lack of effort to really protect us,” says Richard. “Trader Joe’s is typically a great place to work, and if I have to work retail I’d rather work here than any other store. It’s just this response to Covid-19 that has been horribly executed thus far.”
Ryan is less charitable when asked for his estimate of Target’s management. “The only concern of these corporations is keeping commerce flowing,” he says. “It’s becoming more blatantly obvious that it’s profit over people for these companies.”