According to new complaints by peeved workers, the unimpeachably cheery mood your local Trader Joe’s staff is always in might be because they’re trapped in an organic-quinoa-fusilli version of The Truman Show. Thomas Nagle used to work at a store on the Upper West Side, but in a federal charge filed yesterday with the NLRB, he claims the company fired him, two months ago, because his smile and demeanor were judged “insufficiently ‘genuine.’” He describes a workplace where managers griped that his greetings were too lackluster (“It’s not like, ‘Hey what’s going on,’ it’s like ‘Heh’”) yet ignored staff complaints when precariously stacked products fell on workers and harsh fumes wafted through the store. He says managers also critiqued employees via the store’s loudspeaker, once using the public-address system to question why he’d returned his sweatshirt to his locker after unloading products in the freezer.
At issue in Nagle’s complaint is whether requiring workers to maintain a “positive attitude” (an employee-handbook rule) is an unfair labor practice. His complaint appears today in a piece by Times labor reporter Noam Scheiber, who suggests there’s a broader pattern at Trader Joe’s of punishing workers who don’t conform to what one employee calls the “false idea that everything is cheery and bubbly.” Other workers also recall getting chastised for minor infractions in ways that seemed “at odds with Trader Joe’s reputation for positivity,” and say that just in general, Trader Joe’s seems to be after “an atmosphere of surveillance.” The company could be in legal trouble if its policies discourage workers from complaining about work conditions, or even discussing them with each other — a consequence it’s not impossible to imagine when employees say things like “The environment in this job is toxic … I think they want us to be not real people.”
For its part, Trader Joe’s issued a statement in response to Nagle’s complaint that says, “We do not fire crew members for trivial reasons. We pride ourselves on operating our business with integrity and adhering to the law at all times.”