By Dana Ferrante for BCN #134
April 5, 2021
How long have you worked at TJ’s?
D: I think it's been like two and a half years now.
How have things changed for you over the last year?
I went on what TJ’s called a voluntary medical leave, which was, if you don't feel comfortable working, you can take off as much time as you need. They won’t pay you, but [they said] they would protect your hours for insurance. [Under TJ’s rules, you need to work 30 hours a week to qualify.]
How long were you on voluntary medical leave?
It was long enough that it did end up screwing me over for insurance. I think it was maybe like two months total or something like that.
What made you take leave?
It was really just the anxiety for me.
...I was very anxious about it. It felt like we were getting a lot of mixed messages from the news, from the company and it was just sort of a mix of those two things. I [took a little bit] of it in the spring, and then I came back, and was like “you know, I'm not really ready.” Then I took some more time off..
...I do think that their intention was to try to help...But, what they should have done was given everyone insurance. They should have just said, you work for this company, you're an essential worker, it's a pandemic. We're just going to give everyone health insurance and we'll figure it out later.
Did you ever get hazard pay?
I forget when it started, but they don't call it hazard pay. They call it, “thank you pay.” The fact that they call it “thank you pay”... It was absolutely in response to crew members and the public, like the petitions and the public pressure to pay us more. And so an extra $2 has continued this whole time which, which is good.
...Sometime in January or February, they bumped “thank you pay” up to $4, so an extra $4 an hour on top of whatever you were making. There were some specific cities or counties that were passing ordinances that grocery stores needed to give grocery workers that extra $4...Now they're saying that the $4 “thank you pay” will continue until the majority of crew members are vaccinated. But, they left it pretty open ended…
[Rambles on about how $15/hour isn’t a livable wage in Boston and then asks incredulously…] How are they going to explain it to employees when they cut the $2 or $4 wage increase?
I don't know, it's really hard to tell. Especially for Trader Joe's, part of the problem is that, when [it] compares itself to the grocery industry at large, like there are a lot of things that they're doing better. It is just kind of objectively true.
But, does that mean that they are actually paying livable wages? Just because they're doing better than other places, does that mean that they can't still do better and compensate us better? Even the idea that to get health insurance, you have to work 30 hours minimum… It's tricky because the company does better than a lot of other places, but that doesn't mean that, in this wonderful capitalist society that we live in, that they're not just doing the very bare minimum for the thousands of human beings that work for them.
How have your interactions with the public shifted over the past year?
I would say, overall, it's a lot more…tense, I think, is really the word. It’s not like we feel that we're in a constant battle with the customers (although it does feel that way, sometimes), it's just sort of like, we're all tired. We’re all tired, and remain frustrated. Scared, scared of getting sick. Thankfully, at our store, very few people have gotten sick, but there is always a risk, [especially] with the more transmissible variants going around, and with essential workers in Massachusetts being pushed further and further back in the [vaccine] groups…
...I remember, especially early on, people would just come in and walk around for hours, because they had nothing else to do. And it's like, we don't want you near us constantly. This isn't a playground for you to come to just browse because you're bored. This is our workplace, where we have to be...People are coming to the store and they want to socialize, [but] we're tired...[It] sucks and we feel bad about it sometimes, but this is just a job for us, and I think that with Trader Joe’s especially, people really forget that. It may seem like we're having fun, but it is our job.
How do/did you feel about being called a hero?
I guess at first it was, you know, nice to be recognized. This can be a hard job in general, and there is some skill involved in it… But, it did very quickly become very performative, and it didn't feel genuine a lot of the time. Sometimes people were truly genuine about it, especially some of the regulars that you see often and recognize you. But, for me, it always felt very performative. It felt like a way for people to assuage their feelings of guilt.
And it went away pretty quickly. I’m sure you have seen those lawn signs that say “heroes work here.” It’s funny, there was one in a planter between the stores, and it just sort of got dirty over time. It fell over a few times, eventually people stopped fixing it, and one day it just disappeared. It felt very emblematic of how we were being treated, you know?
In America, the idea of “the customer is always right” is very prevalent. I think that sort of encompasses a lot of [American] attitudes about things...But I guess it's been really disappointing how quickly we went from being “heroes” to feeling like we're like a barrier, an obstacle, in the way of [customers] having fun when they go out to shop. I don't think that people mean for it to feel that way, I don't think even the majority of people think of us that way, but there definitely have been times where people want to come in and browse and do whatever. But it's like no, it's a pandemic, and the polite, decent thing for you to do is to come in, get what you need; don't just shop for one thing, and take 30 minutes to do it. We have to be here.
It's something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, and I still haven't come to any conclusions...but at the end of the day, it doesn't feel like we're actually thought of as people. Oftentimes it feels like the customers forget that we are people just like them, who are also living and suffering through this pandemic. It has hit us in exactly the same way, and oftentimes in worse ways…
This idea of us being heroes, that we're out risking our lives to serve and help the public, it feels like it pretty quickly became inconvenient for people. The idea didn't stick, the idea that, we are people who are here to help you. We just went back to being the people that are there to serve you and give you the fun experience you're looking for.
When do you think you’ll be vaccinated?
I mean hard to tell, right? Maybe starting in April.
In a perfect world, there would have been enough that we could all do it at once, but that wasn't the case, and we had to prioritize certain people. But again, it ties into that thing of, so we were heroes a year ago, [but] now it feels like society is saying that we're less and less important by pushing us further and further back. Grocery store workers, some of us have been on the forefront of [the pandemic] the entire time. I took a leave, but many of my coworkers haven't taken a single break. They have not stopped working, they've been there the whole time, you know, some of the managers. And somehow we're still not important enough to get it...
[We discuss research showing the risk of spread in schools versus restaurants and grocery stores]
Can I say one more thing? I feel like I said a lot of negative things, but I do want to give a shout out to my coworkers and the sort of people at my level that have been working through this whole thing. Not that every customer is bad, obviously, it would be very hyperbolic to say that, but it has been tough. I feel like a lot of my friendships with my coworkers have really grown throughout this whole thing; the camaraderie has been a really good thing that's come out of this. I think that that happens in groups of people going through a traumatic situation. I don't like every single person that I work with, but we have all sort of stuck together through this. Our managers have been really, really, understanding. Whatever I think of [the company], at the store level, there are a lot of really amazing people actually taking care of things in the day-to-day. They've made something that could have felt totally impossible, bearable.
Check out all the art and columns of April's Boston Compass at www.issuu.com/bostoncccompass