Trader Joe’s Employee Says He Was Fired for Asking for Safety Precautions; Company Disputes His Account

An employee at the Trader Joe’s store on Columbus Avenue and 93rd Street says he was fired after asking the store to add safety measures to keep employees and customers safe from Covid-19.

Employee Ben Bonemma posted a letter on Twitter that he said he sent to the Trader Joe’s CEO, claiming he was fired because of it.

The letter asks that Trader Joe’s add better filters to the store, limit store capacity based on carbon dioxide levels, and not allow people inside if they refuse to wear a mask. If people are uncooperative, they should get three strikes and then be kicked out, he wrote. He wrote that he had been shouted at by a customer who was not wearing his mask properly.

Bonnema then posted a termination letter he says he got from the store, on Trader Joe’s letterhead. The letter cited his suggestion to institute a “3 strikes” rule as “not in line with our core Values.”

“It is clear that you do not understand our Values. As a result, we are no longer comfortable having you work for Trader Joe’s.”

There has been other reporting about safety concerns among crew members at this store. Bonnema wrote that he supports a Trader Joe’s union for reasons like this.

Bonnema posted replies from scientists who say that his suggestions are good ones.

A company spokesperson, however, wrote to West Side Rag that Bonnema was not fired because of the letter.

“Thank you for the opportunity to correct some misinformation that is circulating on the internet about the circumstances of this Crew Member’s employment with Trader Joe’s. Nothing is more important at Trader Joe’s than the safety of our Crew Members and customers.  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.”

Bonnema, however, also posted a positive performance review on Twitter, Buzzfeed noted. And he has retained a lawyer who plans to take his case to the National Labor Relations Board.

A customer of this Trader Joe’s store shared with us a letter he also sent to the company’s CEO Dan Bane.

Hello Mr. Bane,

I write to you as a concerned regular customer of Trader Joe’s Store 545 in New York’s Upper West Side. Shopping at Trader Joe’s provides me with regular access to high quality products at an affordable price. I have come to view Trader Joe’s as not just an admirable company, but as a member of my community that contributes to our neighborhood in a meaningful way.
I was shocked and disappointed to hear the news that your company decided to fire Ben Bonnema for sharing concerns and offering actionable solutions to improve the health of his Crew Mates and customers. It is my hope that you will use this as a teachable moment with your management staff and an opportunity to lead the business community in setting a strong example of the right way to respond to this ongoing crisis.
You can do this by:
  1. Embracing your Core Value of Integrity by publicly apologizing to Mr. Bonnema, your Crew Mates, and your customers for the actions of your management team and recommitting to the safety of your stores and a fair and equitable workplace. Then rehire Mr. Bonnema at his previous pay rate, providing a spot bonus to supplement any lost income that resulted from this regrettable incident. By taking these actions, you will show that the commitment of Trader Joe’s to its customers and staff is unmatched. The customers looking over your shoulder will smile and say thank you.
  2. Embracing your Core Value of Kaizen by providing a spot bonus or commendation to employees that provide actionable concerns and suggestions to improve customer and Crew Mate safety during the pandemic. By listening to these concerns and responding to them, you will improve your customers’ loyalty, Crew Mates’ commitment, and set a positive model in the business community. You will show that you truly work together as the leader of a team, not just the head of a company.
  3. Embrace your Core Value of Neighborhood Engagement by making Store 545 the first Trader Joe’s to adopt the safety precautions implied and suggested by Mr. Bonnema in his letter (which is copied below for ease of reference). By taking this action, you reassure the neighborhood of the Upper West Side that your company does stand by the commitment it has made to making our neighborhood better, and your stores a strong member of our community.
I implore you to rise to the moment as a leader in the business community. Your company is better than this. You are better than this. The world is watching and you can choose to lead or be another dark story in trying times.
I hope you choose to lead.
Sincerely,
Dustin Shay
Longtime customer of Trader Joe’s and resident of the Upper West Side
NEWS | 35 comments | permalink
    1. Patricia Manley says:

      It is very sad to see all this ridiculousness over everybody’s idea of safety. Have you considered going back to normal and to STOP this nonsense? Wake up, people,, and do your research. Enhance your immune system and respect everyone’s right to do as they feel best for their health. I have found Trader Joe’s to be very respectful and observing of the necessary recommendations in every single one of their stores I’ve been in. I just love how Dustin is telling Trader Joe’s how to run their already wonderful business. it certainly is not reassuring to me.

      • Vincent says:

        What nonsense? The global pandemic that has killed 500,000 Americans? The only nonsense I see here is your absurd thoughts Patricia.

      • Charly says:

        Patricia, 500,000 people in the US are dead and looking out for everyone’s health is ridiculous, and let’s go back to normal? Just enhance your immune system? Where do you get your science, if you even believe in it all? It is because of people like you who believe they can address this PUBLIC SAFETY issue in a way that’s best for them that the virus spreads. How you protect or don’t protect yourself affects others whether you care to believe that or not.

        • josh says:

          I really wish that, in this pandemic, if someone (an individual – I believe it already applies to businesses) chooses to neglect health protocols and infects a person, they would be charged. Either for something similar to assault, as appropriate, for infection, up to manslaughter if the person infected dies. Why do I have to risk getting sick because someone else refuses to wear a mask?

          • Paul says:

            People who wish to disregard safety measures should be allowed to do so as soon as they sign a waiver foregoing health care.

      • BronxBoy says:

        Regarding Patricia Manley’s comment:

        “Enhance your immune system and respect everyone’s right to do as they feel best for their health.”

        Not everybody CAN “enhance” their immune system. You might also want to do some research of your own, a strong immune system can leave you sicker than a weak one with this virus.

        Your “right” to do what is best for your health ends when your actions threaten others. You know, like Typhoid Mary.

      • w 71st Resident says:

        So, your idea of safety is “enhance your immune system” and then just let everyone do whatever they feel like? Besides being *complete* nonsense, it is an excellent example of an extreme individualist approach to public health that is fundamentally dangerous. The people who are most at risk (older folks, folks with immunodeficiencies, folks with pre-existing conditions) become discardable under your worldview. I value the lives of my family, my friends, my neighbors– regardless of age, occupation, or health status. By doing simple things like wearing a proper mask, I am affirming their right to their lives. Individualist conspiracy theorists like yourself are not only anti-science, but actively working to hurt others around them. 500,000 people. Just let that sink in.

      • D-Rex says:

        Seriously?

        What rock have you spent the last year under?

        Oh, maybe you have spent the year on the grand tour of Trader Joe’s stores “…every single one of their stores I’ve been in.”

      • Deborah Cardona says:

        Nonsense? I love how easily some say this…when clearly they’ve not been directly impacted by the virus. The gentleman’s letter is spot on and correct and termination is not a worthy response.

        He is one hundred percent correct and we are essentially doing the same in public schools.

        Measuring CO2 levels is a crucial step especially in windowless environment where one is at the mercy of the establishment’s HVAC systems.

        If people had worn masks and followed protocols a year ago we might have squashed it sooner… but the doubters and inconsiderate perpetuate this…

    2. Evelyn Rich says:

      Accolades to Dustin Shay for providing an opportunity for Trader Joe “to do the right thing.” Trader Joes is a welcome part of our community and has a unique opportunity in these trying times to lead by example.

    3. Eileen Gordon says:

      I no longer shop at Trader Joe’s on Columbus Avenue. Last time I was there employees walked around with masks around their necks munching on food. Customers had masks around their necks. No social distancing was practiced.
      It’s a horribly run store and so dangerous to customers and employees who follow the safety rules.
      SHAME ON TRADER JOE’S.

      • Claire Koppelman says:

        The Trader Joes at 72nd and Broadway has customers on line without masks on eating. They let the checkout line inside wrap next to the eggs and yogurt, so it makes it impossible to shop without coming 5 inches within another person. The downstairs floor is a full PETRI DISH of germs, with people in carts, workers stocking shelves and people lined up for the elevators blocking any safe distance. There is no communication from the inside to the people outside that effectively creates crowd control. This is an outrage for the people who work here, as well as the customers. District managers provide zero supervision. There is literally no fresh air in the store since it is below ground on the main level and 2 levels below ground for the basement level. They require masks but people do not have them over their nose and mouth. NYC should require 2 masks for indoor shopping, and start fining people who refuse to comply. Then we can all breathe safely.

    4. anonymous says:

      As a customer of TJ Broadway store I voiced concern to a manager about the number of customers allowed in at one time. His response was almost rude in it’s rebuff. Sharp contrast to the usual TJ employee manner, they all seem to take lessons in nice.

    5. jean says:

      I love Trader Joes. I have a friend who works at TJ’s but I do believe they have to pay attention to alerts for safety. Don’t disappoint me. I’ve been a appreciator of TJ’s since my first trip to a store in Portland, Oregon. Please be good again

    6. PastramiBliss says:

      Trader Joe’s is lying. I go there as little as possible because some of their employees do not wear their masks properly (one man has some kind of contraption with ties by his chin. He always has them untied, rendering his mask worthless).

    7. Cordcutter says:

      This story is not the first one for UWS. There’s a common theme amongst all prior news stories as well. Employees of Trader Joe’s have been trying to unionize for years now.

    8. Let's Sign says:

      Petition?

    9. arnie says:

      I find it very disturbing that this employee was terminated and for reasons that are quite obvious – he essentially is a whistleblower and we know all too well, that this is not a position that is welcomed in America today. TJ’s is an asset to the city in general and is a well run company and from my understanding, treats their employees properly. However, if they think they are the only game in town, they are mistaken. If Mr. Bonnema is not rehired, then the customers will have to show TJ’s owners, who the real bosses are. We will be forced to oragnize a boycott. We might pay a little more but it will be worth it. I can do without the Argentinian Red shrimp for a while. Thank you.

    10. Jumpin 4Joya says:

      People are complaining about Trader Joes!?!? LOLOL ….Go shopping at the Key Food on 86th and Ams., or the Whole Foods on 97th on a weekend. Trader Joe’s is like a CDC office compared to those.

      • Danielle Remp says:

        I agree that other grocery stores are far worse than T.J.’s. At WholeFoods, Columbus Circle, for example, the store engages a plethora of shoppers to fill delivery orders. Many of those employees violate a host of anti-covid precautions.

        For an 8:00 a.m. shopping trip, I find T.J.’s at 72nd Street the safest. However, when exiting the store a half-hour later, I note that the employees who monitor T.J.’s entrance have already relaxed the store’s standards, often wearing their masks below their mouth.

    11. Not a TJ's Shopper says:

      His complaint sounds disingenuous as his real motive is to unionize TJ’s. Hw wants customers booted from the store but doesn’t have any problems with his co-workers’ noncompliance with mask wearing? He needs workers on his side.

      I detest these frequent calls for boycotts of stores that are the result of shallow thinking. Make your own half-baked decisions where not to shop but stop egging people on with your broadcasting how righteous you are. Then later you’ll be crying that there’s nowhere to shop. Look at what Kroger did in California when they got pushed around.

      The bottom line is that the UWS has one of the lowest rates of infection despite these complaints so we don’t have a situation to panic about. Whatever we’re doing is working well enough that we don’t have to strangle TJ’s. This coming from someone who has never shopped at TJ’s.

      • w 71st resident says:

        1. The letter wasn’t about colleagues’ mask habits, so that’s some class A whataboutism on your part.
        2. Why *not* unionize? Folks treat service personal like garbage, clearly their management does too– the only power that lower tier workers often have is in collective action. If the management is refusing to protect their employees or, even worse, is putting them in active danger, it is clear that they’ve abdicated their responsibilities and employees need to advocate for themselves.
        3. No boycott is mandatory. You *can* still shop there. No one is making you stay home.

        • Not a TJ's Shopper says:

          1. The letter wasn’t about colleagues’ mask habits, so that’s some class A whataboutism on your part.

          You’re missing the point that he’s not consistent about behavior that he’s criticizing.

          2. Why *not* unionize? Folks treat service personal like garbage, clearly their management does too– the only power that lower tier workers often have is in collective action. If the management is refusing to protect their employees or, even worse, is putting them in active danger, it is clear that they’ve abdicated their responsibilities and employees need to advocate for themselves.

          Where did I say anything against unionizing? I just said that’s his motive.

          3. No boycott is mandatory. You *can* still shop there. No one is making you stay home.

          Duh. Once again, you’re replying with facts that are totally unrelated to what I wrote. My point was that boycotts are dumb in situations like this, not that they’re mandatory.

    12. ben says:

      It’s a big ol’ clusterf*** on TJ’s hand. Typical he-said-she-said situation regarding the ex-employee not respecting customers or employer disregarding employees’ safety concerns. But to fire employee right after a letter like this is just bad optics for the corporate. You simply can’t claim that the firing has nothing to do with the letter when it came down this soon after. Whoever at HR that handed down the firing decision is also going to need to answer to the overlords now.

    13. Quan Lee says:

      This guy obviously didn’t want to work. Period.

      • Boris says:

        Bingo. You can’t go off on customers and expect to keep your job. He was an at-will employee and is not entitled to a ‘valid’ reason for being fired. TJ’s doesn’t need to explain itself to anyone unless it violated employment and discrimination laws.

        • Bruce Bernstein says:

          reply to Boris:

          1) Ben Bonnema did not “go off” on any customer. There is no evidence of customer complaints. The dismissal letter referred solely to the content of his whistleblower letter as reason for firing;

          2) It is not true, even for at-will employees, that one can be fired for “any reason.” For example, even if there is no union and no union drive, it is a violation of labor law to fire someone for pro-union sympathies.

          “For example, employers may not discharge, lay off, or discipline employees, or refuse to hire job applicants, because they are pro-union.”

          https://www.nlrb.gov/about-nlrb/rights-we-protect/the-law/discriminating-against-employees-because-of-their-union

          • Boris says:

            1) TJ’s comment: “Store leadership terminated this Crew Member’s employment because of the disrespect he showed toward our customers.”

            You don’t know anything about the lack or existence of evidence of customer complaints. It’s also possible that management witnessed his interactions with non-complying customers that they considered inappropriate.

            2) I clearly wrote “unless it violated EMPLOYMENT and discrimination laws” which includes labor laws affecting union organizing.

            • Bruce Bernstein says:

              reply to Boris:

              Re: TJ’s claim of “disrespect towards our customers”: please note the “weasel words” used here. They claimed in the firing document that the letter he wrote showed disrespect towards customers. If there was any actual incident, wouldn’t it have been detailed or at least alluded to in that document?

              In any case, Bonnema has been vindicated: he has been rehired. So it is pretty clear that TJs CAN’T do whatever they damn please, and that they were wrong in this instance. The managers who made this decision might have created liability for the company and are now backtracking.

    14. Bruce Bernstein says:

      Ben Bonnema and his co-workers at TJs are essential workers. I seem to remember people on the UWS and throughout the city applauding essential workers at 7 PM every night throughout this past summer.

      Applause is nice, but WHAT essential workers need are really safe conditions; hazard pay; workplace rights; and, yes, unionization.

      President Biden recently made a strong statement supporting the rights of all workers to unionize, prompted by the Amazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama. Biden made it as clear as day that unionization is up to the WORKERS, and the employers have to stay out of the issue.

      And yet this is not what the CEO of TJs has done. He has published explicitly anti-union emails to TK workers.

      This most likely is a violation of US labor law, and goes against the current policy of the US government.

      Ben Bonnema and his co-workers are PATRIOTS.

    15. Debra says:

      People who observe egregious violations at stores like Trader Joe’s and others should report this to 311 so the city can take action. If possible, report it online and attach a photo. The infection rate is still high in NYC and violators of CDC guidelines put everyone at risk.

    16. Zacchoreli Frescobaldi-Grimaldi says:

      As Trader Joe’s has taken the position to willfully compromise both employee health and the public’s, I see no reason to shop at Trader Joe’s ever again.

    17. Kailey says:

      I hate that people are attacking Patricia because all she is saying is that we need to be personally responsible for our safety and health – which is spot on. TJ’s does a great job but it is up to each person what their level of comfort is – not Trader Joe’s. Fear has permeated to a level which may be hard to pull back from – but ultimately it is upto each person what environment they are comfortable in.

    18. RL says:

      I think there is more to this story than the letter – which I personally think is OTT. I shop in Columbus store pretty frequently and have seen no staff at all not following protocol and maybe one customer not wearing a mask properly. They also limit numbers more than any other store I’ve been in. I think people generally just want to complain about things in this paper.