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Is Health-Minded, Environmentally Friendly Amy’s Kitchen Harmful to Its Own Workers?

The organic and vegetarian meal maker is facing a litany of complaints from employees over workplace abuses.

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A worker performs quality checks of food bowls at an Amy's Kitchen facility in Santa Rosa. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Since 1987, the family-owned and, as the company claims, “fiercely independent” Amy’s Kitchen, which employs 2,000 people across four production facilities in Northern California and Oregon, has boasted about being socially and environmentally conscious, and that they cook their food “with love.”

Now this maker of organic, vegan and gluten-free meals, including 160,000 hand rolled burritos a day, is under scrutiny by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) over concerns for worker safety. Along with its reputation, it is facing boycotts from retailers, unionizing efforts and the loss of its coveted industry certification for social and environmental impact.

Cal/OSHA’s final report on its investigation of alleged abuses at Amy’s flagship Santa Rosa plant is expected at the end of the month.
 


In the past decade, Amy’s has paid more than $100,000 to settle Cal/OSHA safety violations.


 
Workers have reported numerous safety hazards on the production line and hostility toward employees who speak up about conditions — or even use the restroom.

“Workers are ignored, shamed and retaliated against when they do use the restroom,” according to the Cal/OSHA complaint filed in January. It goes on to say a supervisor demanded one worker provide a doctor’s note if she wanted to use the bathroom during her shift.

Workers at Amy’s are not the only ones to make their grievances public. Their complaints are particularly glaring, however, given Amy’s marketing as a “good citizen” to the planet. Little known to consumers reaching for frozen organic mac and cheese is that workers’ complaints go back years.

In the past decade, Amy’s has paid more than $100,000 to settle Cal/OSHA safety violations. In January, five workers were profiled in an NBC News report on workplace injuries. In response, the company’s founders, Andy and Rachel Berliner, released a statement suggesting they were hearing for the first time the issues “five employees” raised.

Their statement said the NBC investigation “does not reflect who we are as a company and the values we uphold. We want all Amy’s employees to feel they are being taken care of, and we are deeply saddened to hear about the experiences these five employees have described.”

Since the report, Amy’s has made a few changes, workers say — very few.

Maria Sanchez, 57, works at Amy’s Santa Rosa plant assembling burritos and meal plates, eight hours a day, five days a week. Recently she had to take a day off — without pay — to find a physical therapist for her sciatica.
 


“New workers don’t last. They say this is too much work for too little pay and they leave to find something better.”

~ Maria Sanchez, Amy’s worker for 17 years

 
“Working on a line, I had to stand and press a pedal for dispensing gravy and potatoes all day,” she said through an interpreter. “It’s hard to press, and I was limping and in pain.” Sanchez added that she has seen other line workers with injuries as well, including hands, shoulders and knees. “Most [workers] have had surgeries.”

The company now allows workers on the line to sit while pressing the gravy pedal, Sanchez said. But other changes workers want, including better pay and slowing down the lines, haven’t been accommodated. They got a small decrease in their quota of complete lunch and dinner plates assembled from 70 plates per minute to 66, Sanchez said.

But their quota on burritos, which take longer to assemble, is still 10 per minute. “It’s too fast,” Sanchez said, “and if you can’t keep up, the burritos will pile up.”

After 17 years with Amy’s, Sanchez earns $19.60 per hour. That may be a living wage in other places, but in Sonoma County, where the cost of living is 40% higher than the U.S. average, it’s barely keeping up.

“New workers don’t last,” Sanchez said. “They say this is too much work for too little pay and they leave to find something better.”

Employees like Sanchez, who feel like they can’t find better opportunities in the area, have been speaking out for several months. Besides a wage increase, they want better working conditions and better health insurance.

A year ago, according to Sanchez, the company increased line workers’ pay by $2 an hour, but at the same time raised insurance co-pays by $200 a month, washing out the raise.
 


Recently, several food sellers have launched boycotts of Amy’s products until the workers’ demands are met.


 
Lauren Ornelas, founder of the Food Empowerment Project, has called for a boycott of Amy’s, along with Veggie Mijas, after speaking to workers directly. FEP supports both animal rights and workers’ rights, but Amy’s has not been protecting its workers, Ornelas said.

“Conditions are awful,” she said, “like the burrito quota and absurdity of how many they have to wrap per day.” She added that Amy’s has been expanding and that she’s seen the company’s products in other countries. “They have the money to pay more.”

In an August 2021 interview with FoodNavigator, chief customer and consumer officer Karen Jobb said the past two years had been very good for the company, boasting “explosive, unprecedented growth; we’re talking hundreds of millions in terms of growth,” and that the company expects to grow even more in 2022. Since 2015, Amy’s has opened four vegetarian drive-through restaurants, and plans to add up to 25 more in the next five years.

Recently, several food sellers have launched boycotts of Amy’s products, including People’s Food Co-op and the Alberta Co-op, both in Portland, Oregon, as well as an Oakland co-op, until the workers’ demands are met.

Last summer, Amy’s workers from its Santa Rosa, California, plant approached Teamsters Local 665 in the hopes that unionizing would lead to better conditions. But according to union spokesman Tony Delorio, the union decided to triage the safety situation first, and helped one worker file the Cal/OSHA complaint.

“A union drive takes time,” Delorio said. “These (employee) abuses can’t wait for a collective bargaining agreement.”

Conditions at Amy’s, Delorio said, are worse than he’s seen at any other food service company.

“They grab middle aged women who mostly don’t speak English and put them to work.” He added that workers told him that when they’re injured, management sends them to an urgent care facility down the street, which usually tells them to go right back to work. “Urgent care is doing the bidding [of Amy’s Kitchen].”
 


“Unionization is a more permanent solution to bad practices, but that could be a year to get organized and another year to agree on the contract.”

~ Todd Vachon, director, Labor Education Action Research Network at Rutgers University

 
Delorio also accused Amy’s of hiring union busters for its Santa Rosa plant and their Oregon store.

Losing the B Corp designation, which certifies that a company meets high standards of social and environmental performance, among other measures, would be a big deal for the company, Delorio said. In a blog post from 2021, Amy’s said, “The B Corp community works toward reducing inequality, lower levels of poverty, a healthier environment, stronger communities and the creation of more high-quality jobs with dignity and purpose.”

Todd Vachon, director of the Labor Education Action Research Network at Rutgers University, agreed that unionization is not the speediest way  to stop dangerous infractions.

“When problems are severe, you need to take action right away,” he said. “Unionization is a more permanent solution to bad practices, but that could be a year to get organized and another year to agree on the contract.”

Still, he said, if Amy’s workers do choose to hold a union election, they may have the wind at their backs. Food service companies have had several high-profile victories in unionizing lately.

In the past year, Starbucks workers in the U.S. and Canada have filed 180 petitions to unionize and, out of 14 elections, 13 have won, including six in Buffalo, two in Mesa, Arizona, two in Rochester, New York, one in Seattle, one in Knoxville and one in New York City, according to advocates SB Workers United. Pilgrim’s Pride poultry workers have also unionized. Late last month, Amazon workers at a Staten Island, New York, facility voted to form a union.

Still, unionizing is an uphill battle in any industry, and the Teamsters have accused Amy’s of hiring a union-busting firm, reportedly Las Vegas-based Quest Consulting, to head off any efforts. Vachon notes the power imbalance between employees and employers at most companies. “Employers can speak to workers all at once, while union activists have to take meetings one on one, or at bus stops or after work. Employers also use fear tactics, both implicit and explicit, like loss of employment or shop closing. Or they will offer a carrot of a small pay increase, which is worth it to them to maintain control over their workforce.”

But Vachon notes that the COVID pandemic has created an opening.

“We have seen nonunion workforces during COVID taking collective action regarding PPE, and that’s led to a national understanding of collective power,” he said. “We see more organizing in retail and food service now, partly due to the Great Resignation, which changes the calculus in this market.”


 
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