Grocery workers are using Facebook and Reddit to swap stories and information

When a Trader Joe employee died on April 6 after hiring Covid-19 in early March, some of the chain’s employees didn’t learn his death from their managers – they learned about it on Reddit. The first pandemic-related death to hit Trader Joe’s staff was the subject of a post on the TJCrew subreddit, an online community for store employees. While grocers, big boxes, and pharmacy workers on the front lines of America have changed, workers say this kind of information seepage is not uncommon.

“According to my friends, [Trader Joe’s store leaders said] he was legally considered a senior and had previous underlying health problems, “said the poster. “I hope everyone stays healthy and safe. Much love for the whole family of my TJ. “

This has become a new reality during the Coronavirus era: Essential workers rely on insular, online worker communities such as r / TJCrew for essential information. The Goods interviewed seven different store employees, including Walmart, Target, Trader Joe’s and Kroger, all of whom spoke of a chaotic workplace situation and their diminishing confidence that management is protecting them.

Some have argued that corporate offices have chosen to solve major plumbing problems – should workers wear gloves? How many customers should be allowed in the store? – for individual, often overwhelmed and uninformed store managers. Some have argued that guidelines provided by industry sometimes violate previous rules, adding to confusion. Others fear that protective agents such as hand sanitizer will run out and question the hygiene requirements that will be imposed in the course of this pandemic.

Through it all, essential employees have relied on exclusive, semi-anonymous groups on Facebook and Reddit, where they can share information with their colleagues while the corona virus is turning their world upside down. That source was crucial: A Kroger employee in Arkansas told me she didn’t even know the company would offer danger money until she read about it on a private Facebook group. “I learn more from this group than anywhere else,” she says. It doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon.

Long before the pandemic flooded the nation, online communities existed for supermarket employees. Both the Trader Joe’s subreddit and the Kroger Facebook group date back to the summer of 2013, and employees have used them for years to compare notes led by management. But the conversation in these groups has become much more serious because the workers of the supermarket have brought these workers into the line of fire, and today the community discourse focuses almost exclusively on the pandemic. Travis Boothe, a pharmacy technician with a West Virginia Kroger, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and a frequent poster in the Facebook employee group, believes that now more than ever his colleagues need a place to talking outside the ears of their bosses.

“With the state of affairs and capitalism in this country, there is a crackdown on the flow of information. So these communities are really crucial to get through it. It’s an asymmetric form of organization,” said Boothe. check [Facebook group] by the company itself. They can have all kinds of policies to restrict social media or the way 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 a great example of this. ‘

Jasmine Long, a 21-year-old Walmart personal shopper in Arkansas, thinks the same about her Walmart employee Facebook group. She doesn’t know what to expect when she goes to work every day to pick up groceries for her customers. Her responsibilities – including the maximum number of orders Long is allowed to take – seem to be changing by the hour.

“They dropped our cap one day and shortened our hours. And the next day they opened us up again and we lifted our caps, so we have more orders than before, ”says Long. ‘[We] just come in every day and go with the flow. There should be people at the door tracking the people who come in, but I don’t think anyone knows what the limit is. “

People with and without masks and gloves are waiting on April 3 to check out at a Walmart in New York.
Al Bello / Getty Images

Sometimes, Long says, she brings messages from her Walmart group directly to her manager, especially when she finds conflicting information and needs a clear answer. “When they changed the opening hours for personal shoppers, people would go through there and say,” Oh, we won’t be open at these times, “or,” We won’t be open to this one 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, which releases updates to the corona virus policy across the store are posted daily, as evidence of Walmart’s commitment to clarity during the pandemic. “We will continue to take all measures necessary to ensure the wellbeing of our employees and customers,” said Staheli. “These include providing updated procedures to employees through videos and photos, as well as cleaning schedules to provide clear guidelines.”

Long also tells me that the group has no purely utilitarian purpose. Sometimes she uses it for emotional support. Only a select few know what it’s like to be on the frontline of a pandemic. Long feels some togetherness when she reads their stories.

“It’s nice to let people know what you’re going through. Nobody is 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 shocked as I am.”

Richard, a Trader Joe employee who participates in these communities and asks to remain anonymous, says that the online discussion among the grocery store workers has occasionally sparked a big disagreement. He told me that when the coronavirus started absorbing steam in February, he was asked not to wear plastic gloves for the customers. Richard says he is not 100 percent sure where that note came from, but he believes it was his regional manager. The thoughts of his bosses, Richard recalls, was that gloves “looked dirty after you used them.” An online protest from Trader Joe’s employees followed, and management clarified their glove policy, according to an internal memo posted on the TJCrew subreddit on March 21. It stated that Trader Joe’s never had a strict glove policy and instead applied “ our usual approach of talking to crew members about why gloves are not helpful in keeping them safe and what message our glove use sends to our customers. Richard says this moment was characteristic of a company that was still trying to grapple with the reality of the pandemic.

“Everything is hectic and changes non-stop, and the feeling is that Trader Joe’s is trying to get away with as few changes and reactions as possible until their hands are forced,” says Richard. “That’s why it’s so fluid.”

Tyler, another Trader Joe employee who regularly contributes to the subreddit and asks to remain anonymous, says he always wore gloves when working in the registry to keep his hands clean from the juices that come out of the package of raw chicken leaking. It wasn’t until the coronavirus took hold in America that Tyler suddenly came under scrutiny.

“Nobody had a problem with the gloves before Covid-19 became a real problem in my area,” says Tyler. “To [late March], we were not allowed to wear gloves or masks. The managers always said things like, “Well, that can make customers uncomfortable.” If I were a customer in my store, I would be much more comfortable to see employees with [protective equipment] than without because they handle food. Now we are allowed to wear gloves, but last time I heard that we can only wear a mask after hours. We have no hand sanitizer and few gloves. Nobody knows what’s going on. Since this initial interview, Vox followed up on April 26 with Tyler, who confirmed that he must now wear a mask while on duty at Trader Joe’s.

Grocery workers are using Facebook and Reddit to swap stories and information

A shop assistant with a mask speaks to a customer as they enter a Miami Beach Trader Joe’s on April 14.
Cliff Hawkins / Getty Images

Kenya Friend-Daniel, PR Director at Trader Joe’s, commented on these claims: “We have continued to inform crew members that while they can wear gloves if they choose, in accordance with CDC guidelines and recommendations, good and frequent hand washing and disinfection is one of the best ways to protect against Covid-19. “

But Richard believes that corporate inaction has created a web of inconsistent policies in all of Trader Joe’s locations. Some stores, he says, have offered paid sick leave to employees who are only “stressed” about the virus. Other stores have limited access to that same free time, exclusively for those with a confirmed case of Covid-19. Richard says he is uncomfortable with going to work, but cannot afford to take time off, saying the fate of employees is tied to their particular manager’s tendencies.

Some managers responded [to the pandemic] immediately, but if you were stuck with a manager who didn’t even believe the virus was getting out of hand, well, you were out of luck, “he says.

Sometimes, Tyler says, inconsistent reporting can get into real crisis situations. In mid-March, he told his managers that one of his colleagues had tested positive for the coronavirus. But his location didn’t close, Tyler says, because the employee in question “hadn’t been in the store for a few days.” That discretion didn’t work; Tyler says there has already been another case of Covid-19 at its location. “What confuses me more is that other stores across the country have closed, even though the crew who tested positive hadn’t been there in a while,” he says. “It appears that the company is not taking this situation or the health of its employees seriously.”

Friend-Daniel responded to Tyler’s claims, saying that Trader Joe’s “follows and exceeds the recommendations of the CDC and health officials.”

“Our actions vary by situation, and depending on the date range of potential exposure, informing the public and crew members and closing our stores for additional, thorough cleaning and disinfection,” she continued. “We are extremely careful in closing shops in these cases and we will not open a shop again until we are convinced that further intensive cleaning and sanitation has been completed. We recently started conducting additional, proactive store cleaning in some of the areas most affected by Covid-19. ”

Richard tells me that the TJCrew subreddit was 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 can keep up with everything: confirmed coronavirus cases in Trader Joe’s buildings, as well as the makeshift policies filtered to the other locations. It provides a vital sense of clarity during a disorienting time. “I learned a lot about changes that took place in stores long before they started in our store,” Richard added.

Tyler tells me that he thinks the current dissatisfaction with Trader Joe’s management and the budding internet whispering networks could open the door to a fully voiced union work on the other side of the pandemic. More than 20,000 Trader Joe employees have signed a petition claiming damages. The company agreed to what Richard described as a “small” bonus program, amounting to a tax of $ 2 per hour for his services the previous month. “It felt more like ‘hush money’ than ‘thank you’,” he said. Right now, one of the most active posts on the r / TJCrew subreddit is dedicated to the seed of a Trader Joe’s union – something that was difficult to imagine a few months ago – so that the workers could negotiate more than a stipend.

This is a shock to those who have devoted themselves to organizing a workers’ movement in US retail. Adam Ryan, a 31-year-old employee of Target in Virginia who has the Target Workers Unite advocacy group since 2018, it has noticed a wave of activity on its website and Facebook page for the past month. Like any other essential company 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 had been promised to get plexiglass sneezes and protective masks, neither of which came true. When I returned to Ryan on April 21, he said the protective gear had finally arrived the week before. A Target representative has written down any “rollout” delays.

The Target Workers Unite Facebook page was recently highlighted a flyer distributed by management with instructions on how to make your own masks out of a “bandana, dishcloths or socks” as an emergency solution during the pandemic. Ryan hopes that now that the outrage is raging and the communication between workers as a collective front continues to solidify, he may have a popular movement in his hands.

“I think it will spur up activity and worker activity. I don’t think it will go away anytime soon,” says Ryan. “Normally, if someone has a problem with their job, they just quit. But now jobs are scarce, so people can no longer quit. I think this gives us work organizers an opportunity to say, “Here’s an alternative to addressing these problems.” “

Richard, on the other hand, is not interested in a union effort. At this point, he believes that management will eventually turn things around and provide greater leadership and empathy capacity than they have shown in recent weeks. But even he admits that in the future he is unsure if the pristine, family-oriented image the company sells to its employees will ever feel authentic again. He recalls a contest Trader Joe held in February asking stores to move 100 typically low-selling products a day throughout the month. The reward? A pizza party and a T-shirt. That was not much then and it now feels very hollow.

“Some will sip TJ’s Kool-Aid forever, but many feel angry and betrayed by the company’s lack of efforts to really protect us,” said Richard. “Trader Joe’s is usually a great place to work, and if I have to work in retail, I’d rather work here than any other store. Only this answer to Covid-19 has been terribly done so far.”

Ryan is less charitable when asked about his estimate from Target’s management. “The only concern of these companies is that trade continues to flow,” he says. “It is becoming increasingly clear that it is people’s profit for these companies.”

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