What was Trader Joe's thinking?

Full disclosure: I enjoy shopping at Trader Joe’s. I know I’m not alone. It’s a popular grocery chain, presumably for good reason. Indeed, in addition to stocking a number of tasty products, the company prides itself on its “helpful, friendly Crew Members” who “take care in maintaining safe and inviting neighborhood stores.” 

So, what were they thinking when they fired one of their Manhattan employees after he wrote a letter to the CEO, raising COVID-19-related safety concerns?

I have to believe the company now regrets that decision because in a matter of days public outrage over the incident has gone viral. At 5:05 pm on Friday, Feb. 26, Ben Bonnema tweeted that he had just been fired for sending the letter. Also signed by a coworker, it respectfully recommends a number of measures, including improved ventilation and air filtration, carbon dioxide monitors and a mask requirement for anyone inside the store. For those whose medical condition prevents mask-wearing, Bonnema suggested the company’s policy of offering to shop for such individuals be the only permitted option. And he pressed for a tougher (“three strikes”) policy on shoppers who refuse to comply with the company’s mask requirement.

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Bonnema also tweeted Trader Joe's response: it said he clearly didn’t understand the company’s “values” and, consequently, they weren’t “comfortable” keeping him on. A few minutes after that, Bonnema posted his August 2020 performance review, rife with superlatives about his positive attitude, his humor and kindness and the dedication and care he gives to customers “each and every day.” 

Trader Joe’s is now facing calls for a nation-wide boycott.

There are a number of reasons why Bonnema’s case is important. First and most critically, he has a protected legal right to raise issues of workplace safety and health, under multiple statutes. In presenting these concerns with a fellow worker, he engaged in “concerted activity” that’s protected under the National Labor Relations Act, the law designed to safeguard workers’ rights to participate in collective action regarding workplace issues for their mutual benefit, including organizing to form a union. Similarly, his bringing safety concerns to the attention of Trader Joe’s management is “protected activity” under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act’s whistleblower provision. That law recognizes how crucial it is for employees to be able to raise workplace safety concerns to their employers, or to the government, without fear of retaliation. Workers who’ve suffered retribution for exercising their rights under either of these laws are entitled to remedies that include reinstatement, back pay and other costs or damages suffered.

The specific safety concerns Bonnema raises in his letter are also important. He’s likely been paying attention to the many scientists, industrial health experts and worker advocates who have for months been calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to clearly acknowledge that the virus causing COVID-19 is spread by airborne transmission through tiny droplets called aerosols. Unlike large droplets that also spread the virus but are substantially controlled by mask-wearing, aerosols escape most masks and circulate in indoor spaces in the air. Which is why adequate ventilation and air filtration in workplaces — like meat processing plants, schools and grocery stores — is so vital to worker and community safety.

Bonnema asked Trader Joe’s management to consider these additional preventive measures in his letter. Since Friday, public health leaders like former Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) chief David Michaels, have tweeted their support. In fact, Bonnema’s request that the company treat aerosol transmission of the virus with the seriousness it deserves echoes the urgency reflected in a petition released last week with over 10,000 signatures and the endorsements of 45 unions and community organizations, including the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers, the United Steelworkers, the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. As Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health put it, “If workers are going to be given the title ‘essential,’ then they deserve the essential measures that keep them safe.” 

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Bonnema’s recommendations that mandatory in-store mask-wearing policies be conscientiously enforced — as to employees and customers alike — are also reasonable and appropriate, as we continue to battle a pandemic that’s claimed over half a million lives and is still far from over. 

This is not about canonizing Bonnema, though his cause has certainly caught the world’s attention. He’s a worker who did his homework and asked his employer to respond to his well-stated workplace safety concerns. He was also exercising rights the law protects. For that, at least apparently, he was shown the door. Now, Trader Joe’s needs to answer, both legally and in the court of public opinion.

If he didn’t have it before, Bonnema now has Trader Joe's attention. Hopefully, companies across this country are watching too. They just got a loud reminder not to punish workers who report safety concerns. And they got an alert: think about aerosol transmission, ventilation and air filtration and adequate mask-wearing. In other words, especially as new information emerges, be vigilant about protecting your workers’ health in this continuing crisis, in the most effective ways available, because lives are at stake.

Thank you, Mr. Bonnema, for speaking up. Your actions may well save lives. And Trader Joe’s, I hope you’ll do the right thing.  Your workers — and your shoppers, like me — are waiting. 

Michael Felsen enforced federal worker protection laws, including OSHA, as an attorney with the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of the Solicitor, concluding a 39-year career as New England Regional Solicitor from 2010-2018. He is currently an Access to Justice Fellow with Justice at Work in Boston.