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Capitol Hill Trader Joe’s Employees Accuse Store of Retaliating Against Protest Participation [UPDATED]

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The store closed unexpectedly over the weekend after workers marched for Black Lives Matter Seattle

A red Trader Joe’s shopping cart with the store’s logo
The Trader Joe’s on East Madison Street and 17th Ave has been closed since Friday.

On Friday, the Trader Joe’s on Capitol Hill closed unexpectedly, not long after dozens of its workers announced they would participate in the Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County march and general strike that day. The outpost remains closed indefinitely, according to a sign posted on the front of the store (as Capitol Hill Seattle first reported), and employees say the timing seems suspect. They are now organizing a petition to reopen the location.

In a statement sent out to the press Sunday, the workers from “Store 130,” as it’s known, claimed that the Trader Joe’s corporate office was unhappy about the reason the workers weren’t going to work Friday, and retaliated.

“Store management assured workers participating in the protest that [the march] would be considered an excused absence and would not result in any disciplinary measures,” the letter read, adding that store management had planned to close the store early that Friday to account for the anticipated staff absences. At the time the workers told management of their planned action, there appeared to be no indication the store would be closed beyond Friday.

“But on the morning of June 12, a representative from TJs corporate called the store to ask about the early closure. Unsatisfied with the rationale for the early closure, corporate informed store management that the store would be closed indefinitely, effective immediately,” the workers’ letter read.

Many businesses in the Seattle area — including dozens of restaurants, bars, cafes, and breweries — announced closures Friday in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, but reopened later in the weekend, unlike Trader Joe’s. And though Capitol Hill has been a focal point of recent demonstrations, with the protest area around the East Precinct on 11th Ave receiving national attention, the East Madison Street store is several blocks away from that hub. Markets closer to that vicinity, like QFC and Central Co-op down the block, remain open.

In their letter, the workers cite a history of friction between Trader Joe’s and its workers at this location, particularly when it comes to protections during the COVID-19 pandemic. The employees allege they have been met with resistance when organizing in the past to secure higher wages, health benefits, and protections against the novel coronavirus — something that has been a concern nationally with the store. Aside from some adjusted hours (closing at 7 p.m. rather than 10 p.m.), this location has remained open during the pandemic, with business robust from all accounts.

“The large majority of us were already living paycheck to paycheck, and many of us were working without health insurance while risking steady exposure to the public in the midst of a pandemic,” Capitol Hill Trader Joe’s worker Peter Strand tells Eater Seattle. “Our broad participation in the June 12 BLM actions was the tipping point in the decision to close our store. This particular labor struggle is about getting our jobs back, but more importantly it’s about loudly and unequivocally opposing corporate anti-Blackness. We all have a role in combating anti-Blackness inside of our workplaces and institutions, and we are committed to playing our role.”

Trader Joe’s released the following statement late Monday, saying that the store closure was due to a remodel, not out of retaliation to workers (note that the chain commonly refers to employees as “Crew Members”):

On Friday, June 12th, we closed our Capitol Hill location on 1700 Madison Street early because we did not have enough Crew Members available to run the store. During this temporary closure, we are taking the time to execute a remodel plan to address safety and security concerns that have developed over the last year. We will reopen the store as soon as these construction projects are completed, and it is our hope that we can welcome back our customers in the next week or two. As is always the case during any unexpected store closure, we are continuing to pay our Crew Members for their scheduled shifts during this time. Additionally, as is also our practice, perishable product that would expire prior to re-opening will be donated to our neighborhood food banks. We appreciate that this is an inconvenience and value the patience and understanding of our customers.

In response to the labor issues, a rep for Trader Joe’s tells Eater Seattle the store has provided an additional $2 per hour for employees during the pandemic, and that the extra pay will continue through at least the end of the year. The rep says employees who had health insurance through the company before the pandemic has maintained those benefits, regardless of hours worked.

On June 6, Trader Joe’s released a statement in support of their black employees and customers which read, in part, “While what we do in our stores every day defines us, we understand this is a time to also use our voice. In this moment of heartbreaking injustice, we stand together with and share support for our Black Crew Members, customers and communities.”

But the Capitol Hill workers said those words ring hollow, claiming “the company has done nothing to tangibly support the movement for Black lives, and they have penalized employees for supporting the movement. While the company insists that they value crew member feedback and support crew-led solutions, they have consistently disregarded our insights and requests.”

The employees at the Capitol Hill location also said they had not been informed of any remodel plans until Monday, and were not aware of an extended closure until last Friday.

“We intend to be in conversation as a collective with store management and TJs corporate,” the new statement from the workers said. “We are not going to overlook TJs corporate’s actions this past Friday, and we will not return to the store without addressing this breach of trust as well as entrenched issues.”

The issue has already reached some political influencers. On Monday, Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant expressed support for the workers.

UPDATED: June 15, 2020, 5:38 p.m.: This piece has been updated with a statement from Trader Joe’s about the store closure.