What Trader Joe's Can Teach Us About Treating Workers Well

Here's a reason to love the grocery store chain, and it has nothing to do with food.

01/20/2016 07:45 am ET | Updated Jan 20, 2016
  • Emily Peck Executive Editor, Business and Technology
RJ Sangosti via Getty Images

This story is part of our monthlong “Work Well” initiative, which focuses on thriving in the workplace. You can find more stories from this project here.

NEW YORK -- Trader Joe’s made its name by offering delicious hipster-yuppie snacks like wild salmon jerky and sea-salt almonds, as well as $2-dollar wines and organic milk that won’t put your kids’ college savings at risk.

But there’s another thing the privately held grocery store chain does that’s arguably better than its peppermint creme-filled chocolate wafer cookies (they’re called Candy Cane Joe-Joe’s and are irresistible): Trader Joe's treats workers with respect and has structured the workplace in such a way that promotes employee well-being.

That means hourly workers are paid a fair wage, provided with health and vacation benefits and given a reasonable amount of control over how they do their work, as well as sufficient advance notice of their schedules.

“I like it here,” Will Seay, a Trader Joe’s worker in the company’s 14th Street store in Manhattan, told The Huffington Post. “Most retail jobs are strict. They’re flexible with schedules."

Melissa Renwick via Getty Images

If you need to work just a few hours one week because of school or family obligations, you can. If you want more hours, you can have that, too. Like most everyone working at Trader Joe’s, Seay was grinning and friendly while he explained to HuffPost that it’s fun working there and that he feels he’s treated like a human being.

And that, my friends, is how you do workplace wellness. You make sure that the actual workplace is structured in such a way as to foster employees' quality of life and health.

In a way, this goes beyond what a lot of white-collar employers are doing these days -- offering up so-called “wellness” programs that try to help workers lose weight, get fit or quit smoking. Others, typically high-profile white-collar employers like Google and Facebook, are doing meditation classes, yoga sessions, mindfulness trainings.

When people have some level of control, it diminishes workplace stress and the challenges that come with balancing home, family, work.

These programs are good and fine, but on their own aren’t necessarily going to help foster a truly healthy workforce. They're also not as available to lower-income workers.

The real secret to making workers healthier has to do with the workplace and the work itself. “It’s hard to overcome eight or 10 hours a day of poor working conditions with a 30-minute program during lunch,” Casey Chosewood, who heads up a program on worker health and safety at a government agency called National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, told HuffPost.

Chosewood’s group has a long list of things employers need to do to ensure the health and safety of employees. These include the very obvious: make sure the workplace is safe and that staffing levels are appropriate, and pay people a fair wage.

Starting salaries at Trader Joe’s are around $13 per hour, according to data from GlassDoor. Not bad for retail, but a little less than the $15 per hour that many in the labor movement are now seeking.

Pay is just the beginning, however. The next key part is control. That means making sure employees know in advance what their schedule will be like, so they can plan their lives outside of work. It means giving office workers the flexibility to work from home when possible, trusting people to do their jobs, training them to make decisions. It means offering paid sick and parental leave. Workers who have access to paid sick leave have a 28 percent lower likelihood of injury at work than those with no sick leave, according to data from a National Health Interview survey.

Just offering workers a little bit of control can go a long way toward improving their health -- even allowing people to sleep better at night. Workers at an IT company who were given more support to work from home as needed were actually able to get more rest at night, according to one study, from researchers at Harvard, Penn State and elsewhere.  

The real secret to making workers healthier has to do with the work itself.

“When people have some level of control, it diminishes workplace stress and the challenges that come with balancing home, family, work -- simultaneously,” Chosewood said. “That is extremely important in decreasing stress.”

And stress is a huge, disastrous problem, particularly for the legions of lower-wage workers in the U.S.

We’re not talking about the stress you might feel trying to make a deadline for a story about worker wellness (ahem), but the grinding never-ending anxiety of not knowing how many hours you’re going to work in a given week, or if you’ll be able to find day care coverage for your kids or simply pay your bills at the end of the month.

“This isn’t ‘I feel stressed at work.’ People don’t know if they’re going to be fired or let go. They’re not sure how many hours they’re going to get next week. It creates physical stress on your body,” Jessica Williams, an assistant professor in the department of health policy and management at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, told HuffPost.

That stress can cause very serious health problems -- cardiovascular disease, depression and obesity.

American Psychological Association

There’s a growing awareness that certain practices lead to way too much stress on workers. Retailers like the Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch have recently ditched so-called just-in-time scheduling -- where employees are put on call and don’t know whether or not they’ll have to work until the day they’re scheduled.

It’s a devastating system that came under scrutiny after a 2014 New York Times story that chronicled one woman’s attempt to work at Starbucks and raise a kid, without knowing exactly when she’d be working. This past spring, the New York State attorney general’s office launched an investigation into the practice at 13 retailers.

At Trader Joe’s employees know at least two weeks out what their schedule is like, Seay said. But even that's not ideal.

Still, turnover at the company is just 4 percent a year, according to a study published in a Pepperdine University business journal in 2007.

Trader Joe’s also makes sure to cross-train its workers, Zeynep Ton, a management professor at MIT, explained to HuffPost earlier this year. That means, hourly workers stock shelves, but also work the registers and walk the floor to help customers. And on any given shift, they’ll do a mix of these things, Seay said. It keeps things from being too boring.

And that keeps employees interested in their jobs, perhaps the ultimate secret to wellness at work.

The Huffington Post’s “Work Well” series is also part of our "What's Working" solutions-oriented journalism initiative.

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