The novel coronavirus still exists and is deadly, despite the increasing number of Americans who have been vaccinated for COVID-19 nationwide. Health officials are continuing to recommend people follow safety precautions including wearing a mask, whether or not they have been vaccinated. But since the start of the pandemic some people have not only refused to follow safety precautions but some companies have also failed to create coronavirus protections for their employees.
What’s worse is that many of these companies are allegedly retaliating against those who speak up against their lack of safety precautions. In a recent incident, a former Trader Joe’s employee in New York said he was fired for requesting better coronavirus protection for workers. Identified as Ben Bonnema, the man sent a letter to the supermarket’s CEO requesting better protections in the workplace for COVID-19. According to Bonnema, he was fired shortly after sending the letter.
Both his letter shared on social media Friday and his terminiation letter from the company have since gone viral on social media.
“Last week, more than a dozen scientists called on the Biden administration to set better air standards for workplaces,” Bonnema wrote in his letter. “It is becoming more and more clear that aerosol particles—likely more so than surfaces or even droplets—are a significant source of COVID transmission.” His letter cited multiple news outlets and reports to support his requests to better protect employees. “We put our lives on the line every day by showing up to work,” he continued. “Please, show up for us by adopting these policies.”
His letter also mentioned that he had previously spoken to management that while filters are frequently being switched out, the store’s use of MERV-7 filters do not decontaminate aerosols effectively. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a MERV-13 filter or higher is recommended to clear out potential COVID-19 aerosols. Additionally, Bonnema requested the store adopt a “three strikes” policy for customers who repeatedly refuse to abide by the store’s mask policy.
“I was recently shouted and sworn at by a customer who would not wear a mask above his nose, despite Mates already asking him to do so,” Bonnema wrote. “He was allowed to finish his shopping and check out.”
According to the Gothamist, this isn’t an isolated incident. Other former Trader Joe’s employees have spoken up about conditions in stores including one who told the outlet that a colleague was nearly fired for insisting masks be worn “before there was a mask mandate.” Additionally, employees of the grocery chain also told the Gothamist that they were in a “state of terror.”
In response to the backlash and calls to boycott Trader Joe’s on social media, Kenya Friend-Daniel, a spokesperson for Trader Joe’s, not only denied Bonnema’s claims but told BuzzFeed News that the company “never, and would never, terminate a crew member’s employment for raising safety concerns.”
“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,” Friend-Daniel said.
But these claims contradict Bonnema’s most recent employee review, which he posted. According to the August employee review, Trader Joe’s gave him high marks across the board, including noting that he was kind to customers. As a response to his wrongful termination Bonnema has hired an attorney to take his case to the National Labor Relations Board.
“Mr. Bonnema’s spotless employment record with the company is only further evidence that the company’s decision to terminate him from his employment was an unlawful attempt to threaten, restrain and coerce Mr. Bonnema and his coworkers from engaging in protected concerted activity,” he said. “Mr. Bonnema has a federally-protected right to advocate for the workplace safety of his colleagues. Terminating him for doing so is reprehensible.”
According to The Washington Post, Bonnema’s letter did not go unnoticed by experts whom he referenced. Many of them wrote a letter to the Biden administration urging that steps be taken to combat airborne transmission in workplaces.
“We wrote this letter to protect people like Ben,” tweeted Kimberly Prather, a professor at the University of California at San Diego and one of 13 experts who wrote to the White House. “His letter is an excellent science-based request. We have been shopping there for 20 yrs. We will stop until Trader Joe’s takes this seriously.”
Since the start of the pandemic, many stores have left retail and grocery workers without protection from the coronavirus and those who refuse to follow safety precautions in place to stop the spread. Viral videos shared on social media have depicted numerous incidents in which store employees have been subject to violence. These essential workers deserve protection from not only the virus but those who fail to acknowledge it.
“As the danger from COVID continues, grocery workers are among the most at risk to daily exposure to the virus,” Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, told Newsweek. Perrone added that companies must “wake up to this threat” and prioritize mask mandates while also ensuring workers receive paid time off in order to get the COVID-19 vaccine. “We cannot afford to wait for the next outbreak or for more lives to be needlessly lost,” Perrone said.