“We’re now proudly B Corp certified!” chirps a green banner on the homepage of Amy’s Kitchen, the organic packaged and prepared-foods giant. It’s positioned above an image of the company’s founders, the Berliner family — Andy, who is currently the CEO of Amy’s Kitchen, with his wife Rachel and their daughter, Amy, after whom the company is named — dressed in down vests and worn-in scarves, smiling and windswept in front of a blue sky. “B Corp certification is awarded to businesses that use profits and growth as a means to a greater end: Positive impact for their employees, communities, and the environment,” Amy’s explains in a blog post from March 2021. “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.”
Amy’s Kitchen positions itself publicly as a conscientious, feel-good choice for consumers. Since 1987, it has been stocking freezers and pantry shelves around the country with organic burritos, bowls, soups, and pizzas, catering to people with vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free diets (or just anyone who likes breakfast burritos in a convenient frozen form), with branding and imagery that evokes rustic farms and hippie sensibilities. The company remains family-owned, and reported anticipating $600 million in revenue in 2020, bolstered by consumers into the company’s natural, “fiercely independent” ethos.
However, workers at Amy’s allege that the conditions at the company’s plants are antithetical to its stated core value to “take care of people” and “treat our employees like family, with honestly, inclusiveness, and compassion.” On January 17, NBC News published an investigation into workplace conditions at Amy’s Santa Rosa, California, plant. Three days later, representatives at Teamsters Local 665 filed a complaint to Cal/OSHA on behalf of some of the same workers quoted in the NBC piece. And earlier this month, the Teamsters filed an additional complaint to B Corp, the organization that provides certifications to for-profit businesses regarding their “social and environmental performance.”
The latest complaint calls for B Corp to investigate Amy’s and, if necessary, revoke its certification. “Amy’s Kitchen has demonstrated a callous disregard for workers’ health, safety, and human rights in violation of the B Corp Declaration of Interdependence,” Teamsters Local 665 principal officer Tony Delorio said in a statement. In a statement to Eater, Amy’s Kitchen said it “continues to meet B Corp standards and since the allegations, we have proactively invited B Corp to review recent findings. We will continue to work directly with B Corp to ensure the organization has all the facts and transparency it needs.”
While the OSHA complaint challenges the working conditions at Amy’s and may result in a fine, the B Corp complaint is an attempt to challenge Amy’s Kitchen in a more public manner. If a B Corp certification — which is granted based on a self-reported questionnaire from the company — is a promise that this company treats its workers and the environment with care, having it revoked would be a blow to Amy’s brand. Already, independent organizations like the Food Empowerment Project and Veggie Mijas have called for boycotts of Amy’s products, and some co-ops — like the People’s Food Co-op and the Alberta Co-op, both in Portland, Oregon — pulled Amy’s products off their shelves, sometimes with notes explaining why they won’t be ordering more Amy’s products until the workers’ demands are met.
Workers are using every tool at their disposal to fight for, first and foremost, workplace safety: These complaints are being filed as some of Amy’s employees also attempt to form a union. Workers say that Amy’s built its brand on being an ethical choice. Now, they’re trying to hold it to that promise.
“The primary issue for every worker is workplace injuries,” says Ricardo Hidalgo, the Western Region organizing coordinator for the Teamsters, which is behind the union effort at the Santa Rosa facility. According to the Cal/OSHA complaint, Amy’s employs around 2,000 people at its four production facilities, which, according to the company’s 2019 fact sheet, cook up to 1 million meals a day (160,000 hand-rolled burritos among them). The complaint also says around 550 employees work at its Santa Rosa plant — the company’s first, opened in 1987 — though Hidalgo says the number is now around 700, making it the one of the town’s largest and most reliable employers. “I have never, in my career, seen the level of workplace injuries that I’m seeing now,” Hidalgo says.
The Teamsters filed the OSHA complaint outlining ergonomic hazards of working the line, understaffed lines leading to an increased pace of work, and hostility toward workers when they speak up about safety hazards, and asked Cal/OSHA to make an inspection. According to the complaint, workplace design and worn-out equipment are both factors in workers sustaining repetitive injuries. It also alleges at full staffing levels, each line is expected to roll 50 burritos per minute, however, “the standard currently is to assemble 66 plates per minute,” and workers are “often expected to assemble up to 72 plates per minute.” According to the complaint, workers also don’t have regular access to water or bathroom breaks. “Workers are ignored, shamed, and retaliated against when they do use the restroom,” reads the complaint. “One worker was asked by a supervisor to provide a doctor’s note if they wanted to use the bathroom during their shift.”
The Teamsters Local 665 filed the complaint on behalf of Cecilia Luna Ojeda, who has worked for Amy’s Kitchen for 17 years. According to Ojeda, these issues have existed nearly as long as she’s been there: Ojeda first reported an injury in 2006, after she says she hurt her hand working as a line lead, moving bins of up to 600 cans that she says often had broken wheels. “My wrist was hurting a lot on my right hand. I couldn’t grasp or grip anything because my hand got swollen,” she says. At the time, she was three months pregnant with her second daughter. She kept working until her daughter was born.
But the pain didn’t go away, so Ojeda insisted on getting an MRI. “They found out that my tendon was holding on just by very little, by a string,” she says. She had surgery in October 2008, and was put in a cast for five months, during which she stayed home, unable to hold her young children. Ojeda, who still works as a line lead, has been injured twice more since then, and her hand still often hurts years after her tendon surgery.
Maricruz Meza, who began working at Amy’s Santa Rosa plant eight years ago, also says she got injured on the job. While working as a line lead in the freezer, she says a rack fell back toward her and her hand was caught between the rack and the freezer door. “That day, I couldn’t feel my hand because my hand got so swollen,” she says, and eventually a doctor told her she wasn’t to lift more than 5 pounds. Meza says the job given to injured workers back then was cutting frozen broccoli with a knife by hand, but she was asked to carry the 50-pound box of frozen broccoli to the rest of the workers. It felt no less taxing, so she thought, “I might as well tell them nothing hurts so they can put me back to my regular job.” She told managers she was okay, and went back to her regular job.
Cal/OSHA conducted an inspection of the Santa Rosa plant a few weeks after the Teamsters filed the complaint. Findings from that inspection have yet to be published.
The pandemic, employees say, exacerbated the culture of injury. In 2020, demand for Amy’s products skyrocketed, as more people stayed home and stocked up on things like frozen meals and canned soups instead of going out to eat. “2020 and 2021 have been extraordinary for Amy’s,” chief customer and consumer officer Karen Jobb told FoodNavigator in August 2021. Jobb noted Amy’s “explosive, unprecedented growth; we’re talking hundreds of millions in terms of growth,” and that the company is poised to continue growing in 2022. At the production facilities, this has often looked like speeding up the line with fewer workers, employees allege. Ojeda told NBC News that production has ramped up from 21,000 plates of food a shift to 25,716 plates.
In a statement to Eater, Amy’s Kitchen said, “Line speeds are created with safety in mind. They depend on multiple factors, including the meal, type of equipment used, level of automation, number of people staffed, and the number of lanes used on a particular shift. It is not permitted to exceed the maximum line speed.” Amy’s did not specify what the maximum line speed is.
The company has also regularly denied that workplace injury is a systemic problem. In a statement to NBC News, which outlined allegations of mistreatment from five workers who say they sustained injuries on the job, chief people officer Mike Resch said that “if an occupational or personal injury does occur, we are committed to finding safe, reasonable accommodation for everyone and do all that we can to make employees feel supported from the onset of injury or illness to and through recovery.”
But according to Ojeda and Meza, many people don’t report injuries because they worry it will jeopardize their potential bonuses. (Amy’s Kitchen did not comment on the specifics of the bonus structure, but noted, “As common in many manufacturing companies, we have a bonus program that takes into account safety performance and attendance.”) If the choice is speaking up about an injury or ensuring you and your colleagues can take home extra pay, many choose to stay silent.
Last summer, workers at the Santa Rosa plant began organizing with Teamsters Local 665, joining a growing push in the restaurant and food industry toward unionization: Tartine Bakery, Starbucks, Dandelion Chocolate, as well as Mars Wrigley and Pilgrim’s Pride poultry workers have all unionized in the past few years. “What we are fighting for is for safety for all,” says Ojeda. “We want to become a union and have something in black and white, in a contract.” Meza emphasizes workers are fishing for a contract that would ensure workplace safety protections in writing, and promises that line speeds or insurance costs won’t go up at a moment’s notice.
However, she says, as soon as the organization push became public, the company began pressuring and intimidating workers. Amy’s Kitchen has retained Quest Consulting — the same group Tartine Bakery retained in its union-busting efforts — to “persuade employees to exercise or not to exercise, or persuade employees as to the manner of exercising, the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” When asked why Amy’s Kitchen retained these services, the company said, “We believe it is important that our employees have access to information and be fully informed about their personal rights and freedoms.”
According to Ojeda and Meza, the consultants have engaged in textbook anti-union persuasion methods, telling workers the union was a third party there to take their money and keep them from communicating directly with management. Meza says her general manager compared the relationship between the workers and management to marriage. “He said, ‘Why do we need a third party between us? The communication’s really good between us.’ But it’s not true. There’s no communication. If there was communication, or if they would’ve respected our decision [to unionize], they wouldn’t have hired third-party legal consultants to come in here and tell us the union is not good.”
This is also why workers have targeted B Corp. “The reason we actually went through B Corp is because we’ve heard that B Corp is for companies that are transparent, that treat their employees right,” says Ojeda. “And [Amy’s Kitchen] has not been transparent... They are not socially responsible with their employees like they say they are.”
With the help of the Teamsters, workers continue to push for better conditions. A petition published by the Teamsters on February 21 that has, at publication time, more than 6,000 signatures asks Andy Berliner to “immediately dismiss the anti-union consultants you have hired,” and “meet with workers in Santa Rosa and their chosen representatives, the Teamsters.”
Ojeda says in November, workers earned a $2 an hour raise after a work stoppage. But Hidalgo says that was quickly countered by rises in health care costs instituted in January. “Now some workers for a family of four have to pay close to $800 a month for very horrible medical insurance that’s very restricted,” he said. In the NBC report, Amy’s Kitchen said that the company “has been able to pay for most of the increased costs directly, but we did need to pass a small part of the increased costs on to our employees.” Meza noted that workers who live paycheck to paycheck “don’t have the money or ability” to pay health care bills upfront.
In response to allegations of mistreatment, calls to boycott Amy’s Kitchen products have gone viral across the internet and at food co-ops across the country. Amy’s Kitchen says, “We are disappointed the union is calling to boycott the very products that our employees cook with such care.” However, calls for boycott have not come from Amy’s workers, but from grassroots organizations like the Food Empowerment Project, More Perfect Union, and Veggie Mijas. “To be quite frank with you, it was organically done,” says Hidalgo, who notes these organizations reached out and got the workers’ blessings before making the calls. And according to Ojeda and Meza, the support is incredibly appreciated. “We feel elevated,” Ojeda says.
And she’s confident this fight is just beginning. “Just the same way that they are putting pressure on everybody inside so that they don’t form a union, we’re going to do the same,” Ojeda says. “We’re not going to give up. We’re going to put pressure on them too, because we’re not going to give up. We need to form a union.”
Interviews with Cecilia Luna Ojeda and Maricruz Meza were conducted in Spanish through a translator.