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I Work at Trader Joe's and Got Sick With COVID-19

Editor's Note

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When we talk about essential workers, usually the first group of people that come to mind are health care workers treating patients with COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that can cause symptoms like dry cough, fever and shortness of breath.

While we should absolutely keep talking about the dangers health care workers are facing (and thanking them for their service!), we can’t forget the essential workers, like grocery store staff members, who are also putting their lives on the lines when they interact with the public on a daily basis. Despite safety precautions grocery stores have put in place, many staff members have died from COVID-19, leading some experts to believe grocery stores need to disallow customers from entering stores at all, in favor of options like curbside pickup and home delivery.

We spoke to David Robinson*, a Trader Joe’s employee who was recently sick with COVID-19, to share what his experience during the pandemic has been like, as well as explain what he wishes shoppers would know. Here’s what he had to say:

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

1. What has it felt like for you to be an essential worker during the COVID-19 pandemic?

What’s funny is the word “essential.” Never once did I think that my job at Trader Joe’s would become a central pillar of society. In fact, I never even considered how wholly unprepared we were in those initial days of panic until after I got sick with COVID-19 myself. Oddly enough, TJs works best when it’s controlled chaos and typically the more volume, the better.

That said, the first days after the shelter-in-place order were near riot-level at our store. The shelves were empty. Customers were absolutely out of their minds. I don’t think any of us knew how to respond, so we just did what we could. Stocked what we could on the shelves, did our jobs as best as we could. I have to admit, that first wave was kind of fun. In fact, the physical portion of our job was easier, the shelves were completely ransacked, so it was really easy to stock product. However, as the pandemic progressed and it soaked in that we were really in danger on the front lines and the anxiety of the general public increased, it started to affect all of us. We have never been “essential” before, and that’s a lot of pressure. I used to work in a hospital, so I think I weathered it better than some. I tried to keep my mood up, but when I came home, it would hit me. Not so much depression, but having my usual positive attitude was laborious. 

2. You mentioned that you were recently sick with COVID-19. Do you believe you got sick while working? 

I cannot know for sure where I got sick, but given my contact with the public at Trader Joe’s, there’s really no other place it could have happened (I practiced safe social distancing protocols otherwise). 

What is terrifying about that though is Trader Joe’s was probably the best-prepared grocery store chain in the country. We moved quickly to enact some common-sense practices and by the second week, we had everything buttoned up. We had customer count limits, sanitation stations for carts, customers and employees, we had markings for social distancing, 15-minute rotations for hand-washing, we didn’t allow customers to bring reusable bags, we enacted a mask policy and had Plexiglas guards installed at the register. I felt extremely protected at work and felt like we would get through this fairly easily. Getting sick was a shock.

I only just returned to work. My store was being safe about my return, and waited nearly 10 days after my symptoms subsided to let me return (CDC recommends only three days after your last symptom you can return). Trader Joe’s is reimbursing me for my time missed. 

3. What was your experience getting tested like? 

Testing was a breeze. I used a drive-up facility. I swabbed myself using their kit in their car and dropped it off. I did not have to get my sinuses swabbed (that’s the painful/uncomfortable test). The test I used was based on saliva (cheek, throat, etc…) I would recommend anyone showing symptoms to get tested. 

4. Has your store been more or less busy since the COVID-19 pandemic?

The store is a different kind of busy. People are buying more but less often. Individual transactions, therefore, are larger and more involved. We’ve started ushering people through the store, as nicely as possible, so we can get them in and out more quickly. This is for safety, as well as to reduce the lines and improve the shopping experience. This has worked really well, but I feel like I work at an amusement park sometimes as I’m directing lines, telling people to put on masks, etc… 

5. What can shoppers do to be more conscientious in grocery stores (for staff and for fellow shoppers)?

There are some shoppers that completely disregard the guidelines of safety, and it falls on the employees to try to reign them in and explain policy. This is something we are wholly unprepared for, and since Trader Joe’s does not have security of any kind, we have a tough time enforcing it. We have some support from the police, but it is not present all the time. Please follow the guidelines provided by your governor/state government/mayor. Also, at least at present, Trader Joe’s cannot be a social destination. Get in, get your delicious orange chicken and go home. I wish we could have the same sort of customer engagement as we did previously, but it’s just not possible right now. 

6. What do you wish people understood about your life as an essential worker during the COVID-19 pandemic?

My store is in a fairly affluent neighborhood. A lot of our patrons are people who are going to have no issue weathering this storm and their jobs will be waiting for them on the other side. Therefore, we experience a sort of “Quarantine Entitlement.” Constantly, customers are asking why I would risk my life being at a grocery store. The answer is very simple, I have nowhere else to go. If this was a perfect world, I wouldn’t choose to put myself in harm’s way so someone can hoard their next pack of toilet paper. I would stay home, stay out of danger and come back to work when the crisis was over. A lot of people are completely unaware of what is happening around them with less fortunate people. A lot of my friends got fired the day restaurants were closed with no guarantee of employment. We are all not so lucky to have the wherewithal to just stay home. 

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of this Trader Joe’s employee.

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