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'Reckless': Man's Covid letter that got him fired from supermarket job

Brooke Rolfe
·News Reporter
·4-min read

A former supermarket employee has revealed how his request for safer coronavirus working conditions ultimately got him sacked.

Ben Bonnema was let go from his job at Trader Joe's in Manhattan, New York City, on February 26 after his boss caught wind of a list of suggestions he sent to the company's CEO, which included a three-strike policy for people not wearing a mask.

Mr Bonnema was advocating for a safer working environment after four colleagues tested positive to Covid-19 in the previous three weeks.

Shoppers, some without face masks, outside a Trader Joe's supermarket in the US.
Shoppers enter a Trader Joe's store in the United States, some without face masks. Source: Getty Images

Citing calls from scientists to US President Joe Biden to set better standards for workplaces, he asked the air filtration device in his store to be upgraded.

"Right now we're using MERV-7 filters, but the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends MERV-13. When I asked the worker changing the filters if our system could handle MERV-13, he said, 'I don't know, that information has been painted over. You'd have to ask the manufacturer'. Can we ask the manufacturer?" one of his five requests read.

Mr Bonnema also asked for the store's "air change per hour" be increased and taken off an energy-saving setting if it was on one, and requested a carbon dioxide monitor be purchased to maintain healthy "air share" levels.

The point that seemed to most rub his boss the wrong way was the suggestion the store introduce a three-strike policy which would ban people from entering if they refused to wear a mask.

"I was recently shouted and sworn at by a customer who would not wear a mask above his nose... he was allowed to finish his shopping and check out," his letter read.

Additionally, he recommended no one be allowed in the store without a mask on, regardless of any exemptions.

He said those could wear a mask were eligible to have their shopping done for them by a staff member, which was a service they were already offering.

"If they refuse, we should not let them in," he wrote.

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Mr Bonnema concluded his letter telling the CEO "we put our lives on the line every day by showing up to work" and called on him to "show up for us by adopting these policies".

Shortly after sending the letter, he was issued a notice terminating his employment because his suggestions were "not in line" with the "core values" of Trader Joe's.

"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," the termination, also shared by Mr Bonnema, read.

Thousands of people have weighed in on the case after he shared it to Twitter on February 27, the day after he was fired.

'I would have fired you too'

"Trader joe's just fired me for sending this letter to the CEO, saying i don't share the company values. I guess advocating for a safer workplace isn't a company value? (sic)" his tweet read.

While many defended his actions, arguing he was well within his right to stand up for his and his colleague's safety at work, some claimed his letter was out of line and he deserved to be sacked over it.

"I would have fired you for that ludicrous demand letter too. Every store, business and school, including Trader Joe's, is doing its best to make it safe for employees and customers in an extraordinarily challenging time. If you don't feel safe, stay home," one person responded.

Several others were in disbelief Mr Bonnema was being criticised over his bold move, which they argued was understandable given people in his workplace had contracted the virus, possibly while working.

"You can’t be serious. This is a series of research-backed suggestions meant to improve the health and safety of staff and customers. It’s not a demand letter. Rejecting such a document outright is reckless. Firing the author is bad business," one responded.

The former employee has been made several offers of legal assistance following his termination.

A spokesperson for Trader Joe's told Newsweek customers and staff members' safety were paramount, and the company was always open to suggestions from their employees.

"During his short tenure with Trader Joe's, this Crew Member's suggestions were listened to, and appropriately addressed," Kenya Friend-Daniel said.

"Store leadership terminated this Crew Member's employment because of the disrespect he showed toward our customers. We have never, and would never, terminate a Crew Member's employment for raising safety concerns."

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