Ben Bonnema is a musical theater writer who says he was fired by Trader Joe’s after raising concerns about COVID-19 safety in a letter to the grocery store chain’s CEO. Bonnema, who worked at Trader Joe’s store 545 in the Upper West Side of Manhattan posted the letter on Twitter on February 26 after being fired and it quickly went viral. Bonnema says he was fired by managers at the New York City store because they said he doesn’t “share the company values.”
Bonnema, 32, tweeted on February 26, “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?” Bonnema added a screenshot of the letter he sent to Trader Joe’s CEO Dan Bane on behalf of himself and an unidentified co-worker, both crewmembers at the West 93rd and Columbus Avenue store, calling for increased COVID-19 safety measures there. The letter cites a report sent by a dozen scientists to the Biden administration asking for better air standards at workplaces. Bonnema did not say if the other worker was also fired.
Trader Joe’s provided a statement to The Gothamist disputing Bonnema’s statement that he was fired for speaking out about COVID-19 issues. The statement from company spokesperson Kenya Friend-Daniel says, “Nothing is more important at Trader Joe’s than the safety of our Crew Members and customers. We encourage all Crew Members to take an active role in store safety, and share their suggestions with leadership. During his short tenure with Trader Joe’s, this Crew Member’s suggestions were listened to, and appropriately addressed. 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.” Trader Joe’s and Bonnema could not be reached for comment by Heavy.
Here’s what you need to know about Ben Bonnema and what he says led to him being fired by Trader Joe’s:
1. Bonnema Asked in the Letter for No One to Be Allowed Into the Trader Joe’s Store Without a Mask & for There to Be a ‘3 Strikes Policy’ for Uncooperative Customers
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? pic.twitter.com/3TKi5B8HSJ
— Ben Bonnema (@BenBonnema) February 26, 2021
In his letter, Bonnema wrote, “Last week, more than a dozen scientists called on the Biden administration to set better air standards for workplaces. It is becoming more and more clear that aerosol particles — likely more so than surfaces or even droplets — are a significant source of COVID transmission (aerosol particles tend to be much smaller than droplets and can linger in the air for hours).”
He said the CDC and OSHA have “downplayed the dangers of aerosols since the pandemic’s origins, so saying that Trader Joe’s ‘exceeds their standards isn’t good enough. We should be following the guidelines of scientists who study respiratory transmissions — scientists like the one who wrote the letter, detailed in this New York Times piece.”
Bonnema said he and his co-worker “recommend the following practices to be adopted at Store 545 immediately.” The recommendations include improving filtration, increasing air change per hour, limiting store capacity based on CO2 levels, not allowing anyone inside the store without a mask for any reason and adopting a “3 strikes” policy for “removing uncooperative people from our stores.”
The letter says, “The ADA requires that we offer reasonable accommodation, which we do by offering to shop for them. If they refuse, we should not let them in.” As for the “3 strikes policy,” Bonnema wrote, “I was recently shouted and sworn at by a customer who would not wear his mask above his nose, despite Mates already asking him to do so. He was allowed to finish his shopping and check out.”
Bonnema concluded, “We’re writing to you because we know that Alex, Stephanie and Bob are reflecting your corporate policy, and these changes can only come with your approval. We put our lives on the line everyday by showing up to work. Please, show up for us by adopting these policies.” It’s not clear when Bonnema sent the letter to the company CEO, but he shared a letter he received on February 26 showing he had been fired.
here's the letter they gave me pic.twitter.com/BeYmopbmJ3
— Ben Bonnema (@BenBonnema) February 26, 2021
The termination letter posted by Bonnema is from his supervisor, Stephanie. The letter from her notes his employment is at will, meaning he can be terminated at any time without cause or notice. The letter from his supervisor calls out his recommendation to not allow anyone inside the store without a mask and to kick people out for not wearing them or not wearing them properly.
“In a recent email, you suggest adopting a ‘3 strike’ policy against customers and a policy enforcing the same accommodation for every customer with a medical condition that precludes them from wearing a mask,” Stephanie wrote. “These suggestions are not in line with our core Values. 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.”
what's wild is i got perfect marks on my last review lol pic.twitter.com/EJL0VO5G5e
— Ben Bonnema (@BenBonnema) February 27, 2021
Bonnema also shared an August 2020 review and wrote, “what’s wild is i got perfect marks on my last review lol.”
2. Bonnema Has Received Support From the Experts He Cited in His Letter & From the Fledgling Trader Joe’s Employee Union
I am one of the letter writers. We wrote this letter to protect people like Ben. His letter is an excellent science-based request. We have been shopping there for 20 yrs. We will stop until Trader Joe’s takes this seriously. This is causing me to remember some TJ trips now. (1/4) https://t.co/CZmwVugCQC
— Kimberly Prather, Ph.D. (@kprather88) February 27, 2021
On Twitter, Bonnema said his firing is, “another reason for @TraderJoesUnion.” The union organizers tweeted, “We’ve spoken with
@BenBonnema and are extending unequivocal support and solidarity. We will not be providing comment outside what Ben decides to share, but are supporting him in every way possible in this fight. An injury to one is an injury to all.”
According to The New York Times, Trader Joe’s workers began unionizing efforts in March 2020, amid the start of the coronavirus pandemic. On Twitter, the “Crew for a Trader Joe’s Union” tweeted, “Trader Joe’s company Values are to fire a crew member giving a reasonable kaizen over caring about the health and safety of the workers who’ve been working on the frontlines during a pandemic for a year. This is retaliation, plain and simple, and we will be using every resource at our disposal to support and defend Ben and every worker whose needs have been silenced and gaslit in their pursuit of a safe and equitable workplace.”
I am one of the scientists that sent the letter to the Biden administration asking them to better protect workers against aerosol transmission.
This employee was fired for correctly asking for those protections.
— Jose-Luis Jimenez (@jljcolorado) February 27, 2021
Bonnema also received support from some of the scientists he cited in his letter. University of Colorado chemistry professor Jose-Luis Jimenez tweeted, “I am one of the scientists that sent the letter to the Biden administration asking them to better protect workers against aerosol transmission. This employee was fired for correctly asking for those protections. Shame on Trader Joe’s. And on @CDCgov’s inaction that allows this.”
Kimberly Prather, of the University of California San Diego, added in a series of tweets:
I am one of the letter writers. We wrote this letter to protect people like Ben. His letter is an excellent science-based request. We have been shopping there for 20 yrs. We will stop until Trader Joe’s takes this seriously. This is causing me to remember some TJ trips now. The TJs where we live let’s one guy come in without a mask almost every day. He is clearly looking for confrontation. When anyone approaches him, he turns it into a battle. They continue to let him shop. I offered to bring in masks for their employees early on when they didn’t have any to wear. The manager told me his sister was a nurse so he would rather I not supply his employees with masks but instead save them for healthcare workers like his sister. I assured him that there were enough medical masks…it was N95s that were in short supply. He still declined while his employees watched. Come on TJs….you are so much better than this. Protect your employees and acknowledge #COVIDisAirborne
Another scientist, epidemiologist David Michaels, tweeted, “I’m one of the scientists who wrote the letter calling for better protection for workers exposed to aerosol particles. Retaliation for raising safety concerns is against the law. @OSHA_DOL should investigate & require #TraderJoes to reinstate @BenBonnema w back pay immediately.”
3. Bonnema Is an Award-Winning Composer & Lyricist
Bonnema is an award-winning musical theater composer and lyricist, according to his Twitter profile and website. On his website, Bonnema writes, “Ben Bonnema is the recipient of the Fred Ebb Award, the Jonathan Larson Grant,
Jenn Colella and the cast of ONE WAY at the 2019 National Alliance for Musical Theatre, the ASCAP Frederick Loewe Award, and the Harold Adamson Lyric Award (with Christopher Staskel). He added, “The New Yorker raved about his show THE APPLE BOYS, calling it ‘a bushelful of delights’ and that he wrote ‘clever, catchy songs.’ It had its world premiere at HERE Arts Center in November 2018.”
His website adds, “Other full-length: BOYS WHO TRICKED ME, called “heart-healing musical theatre” by Joshua Barone of the New York Times (Musical Theatre Factory); THE LOST GIRL with Arianna Rose (Florida Festival of New Musicals 2021). Film/TV: Baby Steps (composer); Switch Hitter Haze (2019 SPLIFF Film Festival, writer & composer). He contributed additional sound design and composition to Punchdrunk’s award-winning show SLEEP NO MORE and supplied additional orchestrations for Ana Gasteyer’s solo album I’m Hip.”
Bonnema’s friend tweeted, “Thank you to everyone for uplifting this thread! #TraderJoes is trending! If you have the means to support my friend @BenBonnema while he seeks legal counsel and looks for a new job, his @Venmo is https://venmo.com/BenBonnema.”
4. Bonnema Is a Washington State Native Who Graduated From Whitworth University & the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts
Bonnema is originally from Federal Way, Washington, according to his Facebook profile. He graduated from Whitworth University in 2010. He studied music composition and theatre performance at the Spokane university. In 2012, he graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with a master’s degree in theater writing.
In his Twitter profile, Bonnema writes, “Musical Theatre Writer, Rock Climber, Dog Lover, (he/him) 🏳️🌈.” According to FilmFreeway, “He’s a proud member of ASCAP, the Dramatist Guild, and Local 802. He is currently Marc Shaiman’s music associate.” Bonnema worked on the Disney film Mary Poppins Returns and the Broadway show Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Shaiman.
Bonnema received support from Marc Perrone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, who told Newsweek, “As the danger from COVID continues, grocery workers are among the most at risk to daily exposure to the virus.” He said companies have to “wake up to this threat,” and “We cannot afford to wait for the next outbreak or for more lives to be needlessly lost.”
5. Workers at Bonnema’s Trader Joe’s Store Have Raised Issues About Safety There Since the Start of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic
According to The Gothamist, other workers at the same Manhattan Trader Joe’s store have made complaints about COVID-19 safety at the location since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. One worker told The Gothamist, “They almost fired someone who insisted on wearing a mask at the beginning, before there was a mask mandate.”
Another New York Trader Joe’s worker told the news site in November 2020 that COVID-19 had likely been circulating around members at the store, “It clearly has been circulating within the crew. If I were in charge, the only morally defensible option would be to shut down the store, get everyone get rapid tested and only let people back who get negative tests.” Another said, “I’m just concerned I’m gonna go to work and get infected and this is a job I have to do to keep my health insurance. I just can’t take time off.”
Trader Joe’s said in a statement in response to The Gothamist’s article, “The safety and wellbeing of our Crew Members and customers is, and always will be, top of mind. Throughout this pandemic, we have prioritized creating a safe working and shopping environment every day, developing and implementing procedures that meet and exceed recommendations from the CDC and health officials.”
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