‘I’m just doing what I always do’: Trader Joe’s employee discusses being essential during COVID-19

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Adam Cohn works at a Trader Joe's in Ardmore. (Courtesy of Adam Cohn)

Adam Cohn works at a Trader Joe's in Ardmore. (Courtesy of Adam Cohn)

On Morning Edition, we’ve been checking in with listeners and asking about how they are coping during the coronavirus pandemic.

Today, we heard from a store worker at Trader Joe’s in Ardmore.

Adam Cohn is up early most mornings to greet meat delivery trucks. Then when the store opens – it’s masks on and time to be helpful to customers, who are also donning masks these days.

Cohn’s career path to the grocery industry is a story of resilience and optimism. He spoke with me from his home in Philadelphia.

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Do you do all the grocery shopping right now?

Yes, yeah, I do all the grocery shopping.

Do you ever do this thing where you go in and you’re supposed to bring home eggs and you forget to bring home the eggs?

Yeah, we have a list that syncs between our phones. And if it’s not on the list, I don’t get it. Even if I know we need it just because in my mind, if it’s not on the list, I don’t get it.

Oh, interesting. You work at Trader Joe’s. This is not the only thing you have done in your career. I met you years ago and you were working in photography.

That’s what I went to college for. And I was a freelancer for a long time in Chicago. I moved to Philadelphia for a staff position at a company and worked there for a long time. And then they decided to downsize a bit. And I became a freelancer again. But I had to build up my clientele in a new city. To make ends meet, I started working at Trader Joe’s. I had a family then and I needed some insurance. And Trader Joe’s at that time, for only working [a] very little bit of time, gave you full benefits. So I did that just part-time, and then I fell in love with the grocery business, to be honest, and fell out of love with the freelance photography business.

And during the Great Recession, you were deemed nonessential in your photography job, and that’s part of why you made this change. And here now what you’re doing for a living, you are quite essential.

I’m always humbled when I’m hearing that I’m essential because I feel incredibly safe at work in what I’m doing. So I don’t really feel that there’s that much of a hardship. My wife sometimes is concerned that I go out and then come back in. But I feel so much more appreciated. Seriously, almost everybody thanks you in such a really genuine way. I’m just doing what I always do. As we always say, we just put cans on the shelf. But there’s something — there’s a beautiful simplicity to being a cog in the machine, a cog in the machine with maybe a little bit more of a light on you. It’s kind of nice.

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Yeah. But at that moment when you lost your staff position in photography, a lot of people are going through this pain now. Maybe they’re getting laid off or furloughed. Maybe there’s something you can express to us right now that is empathetic to their situation. How did you feel?

I felt somewhat devastated. I had some self-doubts, but I also saw the doors opening as opposed to the doors closing. If a year before I was working at Trader Joe’s, you would have told me I would have started a second career in the grocery business, I would’ve said that’s not possible. So it was something that I tried. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of people that aren’t going to be doing what they used to do when the economy gets going again. I guess there’s going to have to be some decisions. Hopefully, everybody looks at them as opportunities for changing careers.

Yeah. Trader Joe’s kind of has this Hawaiian theme, or almost people on the crew of a ship. Do you even like boats?

Do I like boats?

I don’t know. What is the theme with the flowers?

It’s a nautical theme. We’re all crew there. The head of the store is called the captain. So it’s a nautical theme.

But I guess I’m thinking, when you were doing your photography full time, that can be more of a solo act in a lot of ways. And now everything is about the team. What are the differences there? Does that work for you, the whole crew mentality?

It’s actually interesting that you say that because I did film for a while, and I didn’t like the aspect of working in film that there were so many people. And that’s why I got into photography, because I could do that more on my own. And now I switched back to working in a more team-centric type of atmosphere. And I like boats. I’d be really susceptible to seasickness, though. So I don’t go out on boats very often, but it’s never happened at the store.

Adam Cohn works at Trader Joe’s in Ardmore. He spoke with me from his home in Philadelphia.

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