Trader Joe’s Employees Say They’re Not Allowed to Wear Black Lives Matter Accessories at Work

The North Star has dropped its paywall during this COVID-19 crisis so that pertinent information and analysis is available to everyone during this time. This is only possible because of the generous support of our members. We rely on these funds to pay our staff to continue to provide high-quality content. If you are able to support, we invite you to do so here.

Trader Joe’s is the latest company to face backlash for its response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Employees criticized the company for its policy against Black Lives Matter pins, masks and clothing and its overall response to the movement.

On at least two confirmed occasions, employees were told they could not wear items that said “Black Lives Matter.” One of those incidents resulted in the employee being sent home for wearing a BLM mask.

A New York City-based Trader Joe’s crew member, who asked not to be identified, told The North Star that he was asked during a June 10 encounter with management to not wear a BLM mask at work. He said he wore the mask following an incident with a California-based crew member who was sent home after wearing a BLM mask.

“[I was] fully prepared for it to be a conversation,” the crew member said. “I wasn’t expecting it to be a problem. But I knew I was going to wear it. I wasn’t naive. I was already prepared for how I was going to justify wearing it because it was only a matter of time [before management said something.]”

The employee admitted that Trader Joe’s does not have an official policy regarding uniform and decisions regarding what can and can’t be worn are typically left to the discretion of the management of each store. Usually, the company discourages any use of outside pins, hats or masks. The crew member noted that Trader Joe’s doesn’t even allow employees to wear adornments for Pride Month.

Within an hour of wearing his BLM mask at work, he was approached by a store manager. The manager expressed solidarity with the BLM but ultimately said that Trader Joe’s discouraged crew members from wearing accessories that don’t fit with the company’s uniform.

The employee said his manager also noted that if management allowed crew members to wear BLM pins or masks, then they would be forced to allow things regarding Blue Lives Matter or Make America Great Again (MAGA). He said that he understood his manager to a point, but disagreed that BLM was a political statement or on par with MAGA.

“I don’t consider this a political issue as much as it is a moral or an ethical one,” the crew member told TNS. “Saying Black lives matter is kind of bringing light to the fact that we have a crisis…affecting a specific demographic in our communities.”

After a nearly hour-long conversation with his manager, the crew member was told he could finish out his shift with his BLM mask but would have to wear a different one for any future shifts. He told TNS that he has not worn his BLM mask again at work over fears of reprisal.

The New York-based crew member is far from the only incident to occur at Trader Joe’s stores. He said that crew members are constantly hearing of similar incidents occurring at other stores with varying responses from management. A female employee was recently sent home from an El Cerrito, California store after she wore a BLM mask.

Trader Joe’s issued the following statement to TNS:

“We have more than 50,000 Crew Members, and are aware a number of them are choosing to speak up against racial and social injustice in a number of ways. As a company, we too stand against racism and discrimination and made that clear in a recent statement,” a Trader Joe’s representative said.

“As we’ve shared, we understand this is a time for us to use our voice, and we appreciate the desire to hear how we plan to take action, sooner rather than later. It’s also critical that we take the time and steps that bring about the most meaningful change. When we say we’re committed to listening, caring, acting and continuously improving, we mean it.”

Trader Joe’s Response to BLM Movement Receives Backlash

The statement referred to by the company’s spokesperson was one the company released on June 6. In its statement, which was also shared on social media, Trader Joe’s vaguely referenced the BLM movement.

“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 & communities,” the statement read. “At Trader Joe’s we uphold the human rights and civil rights of all of our Crew Members and customers and communities. We have no tolerance for racism, discrimination, harassment or intimidation.”

The statement continued: “We are dedicated to doing the work, every single day, to make sure Trader Joe’s is an environment that is safe, welcoming, understanding and compassionate for our Black Crew Members and customers as for every member of our communities. We remain committed to listening, caring, acting & continuously improving.”

Many found the statement to be lacking. Some commentators urged the company to “put your money where your mouth is” and to follow up with concrete steps.

“This is insufficient. Say Black lives matter. Say you will begin to invest in Black communities you have not previously. Say where you are donating and that you are,” one person under the username @thefoxfamilyden commented. “Say that you want input on improvement from the Black community. Your actions right now are so important.”

Several comments came from crew members around the country, including the crew member who spoke to TNS. He said he asked the company what it would do to make sure Black employees feel safe in their stores, what sort of monetary donation the company would make and could people expect the company to make a bigger effort to move into communities that are not predominantly white. He never got a response.

In 2014, Trader Joe’s floated plans to build a store in a historically Black neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. The plan was met with protests organized by the Portland African American Leadership Forum, which argued the store would lead to gentrification and residents being priced out. Trader Joe’s swiftly pulled its plans, The Associated Press reported.

“We open a limited number of stores each year, in communities across the country,” Trader Joe’s said in a statement at the time. “We run neighborhood stores, and our approach is simple: If a neighborhood does not want a Trader Joe’s, we understand, and we won’t open the store in question.”

Companies Fumble Response to BLM Movement

Trader Joe’s is hardly the only company being forced to deal with their employees’ support of the BLM movement.

Starbucks faced calls for boycott after it barred employees from wearing shirts or pins on the job to support BLM. Despite declaring its support for Black lives, the company issued an internal dress code memo that stated that wearing Black Lives Matter clothing and accessories could be misunderstood and incite violence, BuzzFeed News reported.

The coffee chain quickly reversed course and announced on June 12 that employees would be allowed to wear Black Lives Matter shirts and pins. It also said it would provide 250,000 Starbucks-branded BLM shirts for employees.

Whole Foods Market faced dozens of protesters in Philadelphia after employees around the country reported that management ordered them out of stores when they wore BLM face masks and pins. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, protesters at the South Philadelphia store said several employees were told to go home for the same reason.

Fast food restaurant Taco Bell was also threatened with boycott after a video went viral of a shift leader being fired for wearing a Black Lives Matter face mask. Denzel Skinner, 26, was fired from a Youngstown, Ohio Taco Bell when he refused to take off the face mask, WKBN reported.

In a statement to the station, Taco Bell said it was disappointed to learn what happened. “We are committed to fighting racial injustice and hosting open forums to give restaurant teams an opportunity to discuss racism in America,” the statement said. “Our priority is to be an inclusive brand while keeping team members and customers safe.”

The Trader Joe’s crew member was adamant that the Black Lives Matter movement should not be cast aside as a political movement and that employees should be allowed to express their support.

"I don't think speaking out, saying Black lives matter, at this very present moment in time, is a political issue but an ethical one. Like we're truly in a crisis. And I have friends who are, you know what, hurting, because they're fearful."

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.