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The Washington Post has the story of Ben Bonnema, a New York-area Trader Joe's employee, who recently wrote a letter to the company's CEO, Dan Bane, asking for "more stringent" Covid-19 safety protocols, saying that only the company's chief executive could mandate the kinds of changes necessary to protect employees who "put our lives on the line everyday by showing up to work."

Bonnema, the story says, asked for "improving filtration, requiring masks without exception and adopting a 'three-strikes' policy for removing uncooperative customers from stores."  The letter came after Bonnema "was 'shouted and sworn at by a customer who would not wear his mask above his nose, despite Mates already asking him to do so.' The customer was allowed to continue shopping."

Trader Joe's response to the request:  Bonnema was fired.

The termination letter, which Bonnema shared on social media, "said his recommendations went against company values," the Post writes:

“In a recent email, you suggest adopting a ‘3 strike’ policy against customers and a policy enforcing the same accommodation for every customer with a medical condition that precludes them from wearing a mask,” the letter said. “These suggestions are not in line with our core Values. In addition, you state that Trader Joe’s is not ‘showing up for us’ without adopting your policies. 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.”

Trader Joe's spokesperson Kenya Friend-Daniel tells the Post that "'misinformation' was circulating about the circumstances of Bonnema’s termination. She said he was fired 'because of the disrespect he showed toward our customers' and added:  'Nothing is more important at Trader Joe’s than the safety of our Crew Members and customers'."

There may be a flaw in that rationale, though:  "Bonnema posted what he says is his August employee review, in which Trader Joe’s gave him high marks across the board. He was rated as meeting expectations in every category and praised for humor, kindness and embracing 'the Kaizen spirit' - a reference to the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement used by the company.

"He was commended for the 'dedication and care' he showed to customers, with the reviewer writing:  'You continue to have thoughtful interactions with them at the register and on the sales floor'."

The Post notes that "the company’s coronavirus safety measures include requiring face coverings, providing employees with gloves and masks, pre-shift wellness checks, enhanced cleanings and increased sick time, according to its website."

However, public health experts say that Bonnema's request was "an excellent science-based request," while employment experts say he was within his rights to make such requests.  

Bonnema is expected to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) seeking reinstatement.

KC's View:

I'm not sure that everything Bonnema was asking for was possible - the three strikes request seems an unlikely rule to be imposed - but it also doesn't sound like firing him was a reasonable response.  It is hard to argue that he is an employee out of synch with core company values when his official review says precisely the opposite.

I suspect that this is not a hill that Trader Joe's wants to die on … if it really believes in the essential-ness of its employees, this is a place to prove it.  Otherwise, the words ring hollow.