Have you ever noticed that Trader Joe’s employees are constantly speaking to each other in an overtly cheerful manner about politics and sports? This is the first sign that something is very wrong. The second, in my opinion, is that games and parties aren’t invoked so much as the upbeat rhythm of socially engaged banter. I once heard a Trade Joe’s employee exclaim, “How about those teams?!” to a bag of baby broccolini. I think it was practice.
Perhaps I go to Trader Joe’s too often, or it’s a New York-specific issue, but something always seemed off—and not with the workers so much as with management. Nor am I by any means the first to notice. In case you are unfamiliar with the store, perhaps because you don’t live near one of its 459 locations, they sell high-end food products (like truffle flavored raviolis and crackers with blue cheese already baked inside of them) for relatively low prices, and have notoriously secretive ownership.
The New York Times somewhat confirmed my suspicions with an article they published on Thursday that registers several complaints from some Trader Joe’s employees including that, “they are pressured to appear happy with customers and co-workers, even when that appearance is starkly at odds with what is happening in the store.”
Here’s a free sampling of what some of those other complaints have been, according to the Times:
“[I]n recent years, the patina of good cheer has masked growing strife and demoralization in some stores on the East Coast, far from the company’s base in California. A number of workers, known at Trader Joe’s as “crew members,” complain of harsh and arbitrary treatment at the hands of managers, of chronic safety lapses and of an atmosphere of surveillance.”
The Times also reports that, on Thursday, a longtime employee of Trader Joe’s Manhattan Upper West Side location named Thomas Nagle filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office, claiming he’d been repeatedly told off and eventually fired because management deemed his smile and general composure to be insufficiently “genuine.”
Trader Joe’s response to the Times request for comment was eerily chipper, “We are committed to maintaining a great and safe environment in which to work. We promote an open and honest environment that encourages questions, suggestions or concerns to be raised.”
Nagle also claims some workers have been sickened by stockroom fumes and hurt by falling food products, and that, in his experience, “managers appeared to harass worker for the sport of it.” I wonder if this is what employees are actually discussing.