Trader Joe’s paid leave policy is a reminder that not everyone can work from home

When you can’t stay home.
When you can’t stay home.
Image: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer
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This week, a critical debate over responding to Covid-19 boiled over in the grocery aisle. It happened at Trader Joe’s, the California-headquartered bargain grocery chain popular with younger shoppers.

As the global economy reacts to Covid-19, the disease caused by a novel coronavirus, many firms are allowing their workers to do their jobs from the comfort of their homes. Several US companies encouraged at least some of their employees to work from home, including Amazon, Twitter, and Indeed. In China, LinkedIn’s rival Maimai allowed some of its workers to work from home, along with Meituan Dianping, a food delivery firm. In Europe, Google and Sony encouraged their workers to do the same.

But not all companies can play by these rules—and not all countries have adequate protections in place for workers who should stay home to keep coworkers and customers healthy. A grocery store like Trader Joe’s has to keep physical shelves stocked no matter what. And the US remains one of the world’s few developed countries without a federal law guaranteeing workers any amount of paid sick leave. That means employees who can’t afford to miss a paycheck may feel compelled to show up to work sick.

As cases of Covid-19 continue to accumulate in the US, that federal policy gap is exposing the tensions of running a business that requires boots-on-the-ground labor, leading some companies to grapple with their individual policies in real time.

Trader Joe’s this week—following a public skirmish with its workers’ union—said it was going to change its sick leave policy in light of the coronavirus. It will allow employees to stay at home if they fall ill, though the extent and specific details around what employees qualify for paid time away isn’t yet clear. Retailers Target and Macy’s have not yet announced what their paid leave plan is. And Walmart, which employs 1.5 million Americans, has said it will respond to the situation as it evolves.

It’s a big step for the grocery chain, which has more than 10,000 employees working across more than 500 locations. But it’s also an ongoing story, as the global spread of the novel coronavirus puts pressure on similar businesses to rethink their policies. If confirmed cases of the virus continue to tick upward, it may force companies—including some of the biggest names in retail—to talk more openly about adopting new policies around paid time off for health reasons.