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On July 14, two customers entered a Trader Joe’s grocery store in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan without masks. They refused orders from workers to wear a mask, and began assaulting workers there, according to employees of the store and the New York City Police Department.
The men are both in their 30s, and the altercation occurred just before closing time, according to a spokesperson for the police department.
One of the customers ripped a mask off the face of the employee who’d asked them to wear masks, pummeled an employee over the head with a wooden paddle, and pulled the hair of a third worker, according to the police spokesperson. The employee who was pummeled with the wooden paddle (used by Trader Joe’s cashiers to signal that they’re ready to checkout a new customer) started bleeding from the head and had to go to the hospital, according to an employee who witnessed the incident. Trader Joe’s has still not publicly acknowledged the incident and did not respond to a request for comment.
“Don’t make me get my gun,” one of the customers yelled, according to the NYPD spokesperson.
The altercation at the Trader Joe’s in New York City, once the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, is yet another example of the ideologically-charged battle that is roaring across the country, often between workers concerned for their health and safety and customers who see wearing a face mask as an encroachment on their freedom. In May, customers allegedly broke the arm of a security guard at a Target in Southern California after he confronted them about not wearing face masks. Brawls and charged confrontations have also broken out at coffee shops, restaurants, convenience stores, and other Trader Joe’s locations. At some stores with mask requirements, like GameStop, retail workers have been prohibited from enforcing the policy.
Trader Joe’s requires that all customers and employees wear face masks, with the exception of children and people with medical conditions who cannot wear face masks.
A Trader Joe’s crew member at the Murray Hill location who witnessed the events told Motherboard that upon entering the store, the men told an employee that masks would not be necessary after the upcoming election—seeming to suggest that Donald Trump would be reelected in November.
The worker said that the pair of customers assaulted seven crew members and three managers during the altercation, and that the men threw grocery baskets at employees.
The NYPD spokesperson could not confirm to Motherboard the number of people who were attacked but said that upon leaving the building, one of the men grabbed a chair and began smashing it into the front window of the store in an attempt to regain entry. Both men were arrested.
Two employees who asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation for speaking to the press said they believed Trader Joe’s has not acknowledged the July 14 incident in order not to scare away customers and did not inform all of the store’s employees of the altercation. This story is the first to be published about the event, which occurred two weeks ago.
“The mentality of our store is that it cares more about making money, and doesn’t want a dip in sales. I’m not surprised that the attack wasn’t covered by the media,” the worker who witnessed the attack said. “They didn’t want people to be afraid to come back into the store.”
“There has been absolutely no media coverage of [the assaults] because [Trader Joe’s] is doing its very best to sweep it under the rug,” another Murray Hill Trader Joe’s employee who wished to remain anonymous wrote to Motherboard. “Staff not present, such as myself, weren’t even told this happened afterward.”
Like its competitor Whole Foods, which markets itself as progressive but has come under heat for failing to protect workers during COVID-19, many workers say Trader Joe’s has failed to live up to its values. On March 16, the Coalition for a Trader Joe’s Union (CTJU) petitioned the company to provide workers with hazard pay. After the petition received 10,000 signatures, the company set up a “special bonus pool” that was divided among workers and amounted to a temporary bump of less than $2 an hour. Some workers say they were told not to wear face masks or protective gloves in Trader Joe’s grocery stores, including the Murray Hill location, for weeks after the pandemic had arrived in New York City.
In early April, a Trader Joe’s employee at a store in Scarsdale, New York, died of the coronavirus.
Across the country, retail chains are struggling to adapt to COVID-19. The CDC recommends people wear masks to slow the spread of the virus, and some stores require them but can’t necessarily make service workers enforce that rule. GameStop, for example, requires customers to wear masks but specifically tells its employees to not refuse service to a customer who refuses to wear a mask.
“We are putting ourselves at risk every day. We are forced to come to work to do our jobs because we have no other choice. To see my family here get punched and hurt because some customers think they’re better than us is not OK,” the worker who witnessed the attack said. “Don’t hurt people who are not at fault. We’re just trying to stay safe and not die.”