Trader Joe's employee who is deaf finds new way to communicate with customers in face masks

Matthew Simmons uses sign language and reads lips, but with people now wearing masks, he had to find another way to communicate with customers.
/ Source: TODAY

Working in a grocery store during a pandemic is a high pressure experience, but for Matthew Simmons, an added challenge presented itself with people wearing masks and covering their mouths.

The Trader Joe's employee is deaf. For the last two years, Simmons has worked at Trader Joe's in Vancouver, Washington on the weekends and during the summer while on break from his job as an assistant teacher at the Washington State School for the Deaf.

Simmons loves interacting with customers, but said when people started following guidelines to cover their faces, it created a new obstacle for him at work that led to more "anxiety."

Matthew Simmons is pictured working the Trader Joe's register at his store in Vancouver, Washington.

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"When customers (wearing masks) come up to me to ask a question on the floor, I always said, 'I am Deaf and need to read your lips so I can help you,'" Simmons told TODAY Food in an email. "Some of the times, customers didn’t want to lower down their masks and shook their heads 'no' and walked away from me. It made me upset because I couldn't help and left me feeling defeated."

When Simmons was stationed as a cashier, he said customers wearing masks would sometimes attempt to strike up a conversation, but were "unaware that I was not ignoring them or being rude, but simply did not know they were speaking to me."

"A main component of my job is customer service and assisting them in whatever they may need," he said. "How can I assist them if I have no idea what it is they are asking for?"

Even talking to his co-workers was a challenge. They would lower their masks or try to use signs he taught them, but it was still a barrier.

"When wearing a mask it cuts off 55% of facial communication and even if using ASL it is heavily based on facial expressions in order to make sure the communication is understood clearly," Simmons said. "It is almost similar as the hearing world would say 'tone of voice.' So clearly people wearing masks hugely impacts ALL communication for a Deaf person regardless if the person is speaking or even using ASL."

Simmons and his mate, which is the lingo Trader Joe's uses for assistant manager, discussed solutions to make sure he could feel comfortable and effectively help customers during such an unprecedented time. At first, they stationed another team member with him at the register to help communicate. While it was effective, Simmons said it still made him feel "truly different or disabled having to depend on someone to do my job that I am completely capable of doing and was hired to do."

He decided to look for other solutions. Simmons found a shirt online that said "I'm deaf" on the front and "tap on the shoulder" on the back.

He collaborated with his manager to print the messages on one of his Trader Joe's black shirts, making sure it was "more visible and accessible."

His manager also bought three small white boards for him to carry while he was on duty around the store.

Simmons is using a white board to make sure he can still assist customers with questions while they wear masks.

"In case any customers had questions, they could write it down for me and not have to lower their masks making communication no longer a problem," he said. "After the shirt was done, I wore it and when it was time for me to be on a register, I was given permission to write on the plexiglass saying, 'Hi My name is Matthew. I am deaf and read lips.'"

He also wrote an arrow to a white board in case customers wanted to write down any questions.

"When I opened the register, the first customer read it and wrote down on the small white board stating, 'It must be hard with everyone wearing masks! Thank you for your help. :),'" he said. "This made me feel better and I was able to start smiling again!"

It's a "crazy" time for all essential workers, Simmons said. But he truly loves interacting with customers and is happy to share his story.

In early April, Trader Joe's faced backlash from crew members who felt unsafe about their work conditions after a New York employee died from coronavirus. Trader Joe's responded with various measures it has taken in the past few weeks with regards to employee safety, including more frequent store cleanings and $2 (per hour) raises for crew members working on the front lines.

"I just hope that my experiences during this pandemic will make people be more compassionate toward each other. Working together towards a common goal, breaking down barriers....showing compassion to one another instead of prejudices," he said.

"I am a proud member of the Deaf community who also has acquired skills to navigate in the hearing world and yet both of those worlds often collide or have their own stigmas. If I can help educate or inspire others during this very unique time then that is amazing and I have faith and am hopeful because to see the lengths that my fellow TJ team went to so that I would feel supported and no different then[sic] any other employee really shows the human kindness we have for one another."