A former employee at Trader Joe's on the Upper West Side claims to have been fired shortly after sending a letter to the supermarket's CEO requesting improved workplace protections for COVID-19.
In a letter that's since gone viral on social media, Ben Bonnema—who worked at the same Upper West Side location at West 93rd Street and Columbus Avenue that experienced alleged instances of poor working conditions throughout the pandemic—wrote to CEO Dan Bane on behalf of himself and another unidentified employee (a.k.a. "crew mate") this week requesting some steps the food retailer should consider in keeping employees safe. He also questioned some of Trader Joe's practices in ensuring airflow is properly exchanged as a way of minimizing any lingering coronavirus aerosols.
Bonnema, who was unavailable for an interview but describes himself as a writer, rock climber, and dog lover on Twitter, cited several studies and newspaper articles to support various requests to protect employees.
"Last week, more than a dozen scientists called on the Biden administration to set better air standards for workplaces," Bonnema wrote. "It is becoming more and more clear that aerosol particles—likely more so than surfaces or even droplets—are a significant source of COVID transmission."
He said that while he was told by management that filters are frequently being switched out, he alleges that the store's use of MERV-7 filters do not decontaminate aerosols effectively. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a MERV-13 filter or higher is recommended to clear out potential COVID aerosols. Bonnema also requested the store adopt a "three strikes" policy for customers who repeatedly flout the store's mask policy.
"I was recently shouted and sworn at by a customer who would not wear a mask above his nose, despite Mates already asking him to do so," Bonnema claims in his letter. "He was allowed to finish his shopping and check out."
Bonnema ended his letter asking Bane to consider him and his co-workers' requests.
Shortly after sending the letter, Bonnema was sent a response saying he was terminated, reminding him of Trader Joe's policy that it can fire employees "at will" and "without cause."
"In a recent email, you suggest adopting a '3 strike' policy against customers and a policy enforcing the same recommendation for every customer with a medical condition that precludes them from wearing a mask," the response letter reads. "These suggestions are not in line with our core values."
"Trader Joe's just fired me for sending this letter to the CEO, saying I don't share the company values," Bonnema wrote. "I guess advocating for a safer workplace isn't a company value?"
He posted the letter on Twitter:
Former employees at Trader Joe's, known as Store 545, have previously spoken out about conditions at the store. One employee—who had requested anonymity to speak candidly about the store's approach to the pandemic—told Gothamist in November that a fellow crew mate was nearly fired for insisting they wear a mask "before there was a mask mandate." As coronavirus cases crept up in November, the employee said at least four workers became infected with COVID.
Attempts at unionizing following last March were discouraged by Bane, sending a letter to employees to call organizing a "distraction." In the letter Bane wrote there will be "ample time to deal with the union push" once the return to "new normal" settles in, with employees at individual stores able to unionize so long as 30% of its employees "demand Trader Joe's hold a union vote."
Bonnema's letter also comes as increased benefits for store employees—including an extra $2 an hour "thank you pay" and 20% store discount—will expire next month.
Kenya Friend-Daniel, a spokesperson for Trader Joe's, said contrary to the claims made, Bonnema wasn’t fired because he raised concerns.
“Nothing is more important at Trader Joe’s than the safety of our Crew Members and customers,” Friend-Daniel said in a statement. “We encourage all Crew Members to take an active role in store safety, and share their suggestions with leadership. During his short tenure with Trader Joe’s, this Crew Member’s suggestions were listened to, and appropriately addressed. Store leadership terminated this Crew Member’s employment because of the disrespect he showed toward our customers. We have never, and would never, terminate a Crew Member’s employment for raising safety concerns.“