Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Inside the controversy at Amy’s Kitchen, the Bay Area’s wildly popular organic food company – San Francisco Chronicle

Amy’s Kitchen, a Bay Area company known for its organic canned and frozen meals, is grappling with public fallout over a worker-led effort to unionize and allegations of unsafe working conditions at its Santa Rosa factory.

Since a group of Amy’s employees said they were injured at work and mistreated by the company in an NBC News story in January, the popular Petaluma company has faced widespread criticism and boycotts.

The workers’ concerns have thrown into question Amy’s public image as a wholesome, family-owned company that espouses the values of local, organic food. CEO Andy Berliner and his wife, Rachel, started the business in Petaluma in 1987, selling organic pot pies out of their home. It’s since grown into a national brand that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and has close to 3,000 employees. Amy’s has grown beyond grocery aisles in recent years, opening multiple drive-thru restaurants in the Bay Area and a 65,000-square-foot production facility in San Jose.

Inside Amy’s, tension has been mounting not only between employees and employer but also among workers, who don’t all agree on forming a union or advocating for boycotts. The tension has spilled over into national headlines, workplace safety investigations and, most recently, an internal audit conducted at the request of a large Amy’s customer. The findings of the audit, which Amy’s released to The Chronicle, are detailed below. The dispute at Amy’s coincides with other high-profile unionization efforts in the food industry, including at Starbucks and Tartine Bakery.

Read on for the latest on the Amy’s controversy and what it means for the future of the Bay Area business.

Factory workers gather ingredients to make ravioli dishes at Amy’s Kitchen in Santa Rosa.


Factory workers gather ingredients to make ravioli dishes at Amy’s Kitchen in Santa Rosa.

Samantha Laurey/The Chronicle

What did the internal audit find?

The audit, conducted by Arche Advisors during an unannounced visit to the Santa Rosa plant in late January, flagged two findings. There was a “lack of communication” with employees about how to anonymously file grievances — they were unaware that they could use a hotline and website to raise any issues “without fear of retaliation,” the audit report reads. Posters explaining the grievance procedures were available only in English, and many of the plant’s 624 employees are Spanish-speaking. Amy’s said it has since created a new training course on grievances for employees and put up posters in Spanish.

The other compliance issue was a fire extinguisher that was obstructed but cleared while the auditor was at the plant.

The audit stated that Amy’s provides adequate breaks and benefits to employees, and properly investigates and addresses facility accidents.

For the audit, Arche Advisors interviewed and surveyed employees, and reviewed injury reports, payroll records and other internal company documents. The company gave Amy’s an “intermediate performance” assessment rating with a grade of 86. The report didn’t assess the union effort in depth.

What are workers alleging?

Santa Rosa factory workers have described an unsafe, high-pressure work environment that leaves them at risk for serious injury. A Cal/OSHA complaint filed by longtime Amy’s employee Cecilia Luna Ojeda in late January alleges a “hazardous and life threatening work environment” at the factory.

Ojeda said that Amy’s didn’t properly respond to several work-related injuries. In 2008, after complaining of pain in her right hand to supervisors, a doctor eventually found that a tendon in her wrist had been damaged to the point that it required surgery. (Amy’s paid for the surgery in full, she said.) She later experienced pain in her right and left shoulders and received workers’ compensation to take time off, but felt pressured to return to work before she recuperated, she said. After a pipe fell on the head of a former employee, causing a concussion and later seizures, Amy’s didn’t honor accommodations recommended by a doctor, according to the complaint.

Cecilia Luna Ojeda plays with her children, including Crystal, 5, outside her Santa Rosa home. The longtime Amy’s Kitchen worker is part of an effort to unionize the organic food company.


Cecilia Luna Ojeda plays with her children, including Crystal, 5, outside her Santa Rosa home. The longtime Amy’s Kitchen worker is part of an effort to unionize the organic food company.

Preston Gannaway/Special to The Chronicle

The Cal/OSHA complaint states that the risk of injury stems from pressure to meet “high quotas” on the production line. In contrast with the internal audit’s findings, she alleged employees aren’t given adequate bathroom or stretching breaks and that “workers are ignored, shamed, and retaliated against when they do use the restroom.”

At its peak, the Santa Rosa factory produces 19,000 pounds of food a day, according to the internal audit. Employees are paid between $14 and $30 an hour.

Since Ojeda and other workers went public with their concerns, she said there have been small improvements at work, including the addition of an employee who monitors the speed of the production line. But she fears that without a union contract, the changes won’t be permanent.

Do Amy’s workers want to unionize?

Some do, but not all. With the help of Teamsters Local Union 665, a group of workers are organizing to demand stronger safety provisions, better pay and benefits.

“We want a union contract to be protected,” Ojeda told The Chronicle in Spanish. “We want to protect our rights as workers.”

Workers are divided on unionization at Amy’s Kitchen.


Workers are divided on unionization at Amy’s Kitchen.

Samantha Laurey/The Chronicle

But other workers said they’re happy at Amy’s and don’t support the union effort — including Margarita Vasquez, a senior manufacturing worker and single mother who’s worked at Amy’s for over two decades. In an interview conducted in Spanish, she said she feels safe and satisfied at work. She appreciates the medical benefits, the access to a health clinic next to the plant, bonuses and annual Christmas gifts. She also opposes the boycott.

Vasquez spoke highly of Berliner, who she said “treats us like family.”

Amy’s and the pro-union workers disagree on how widespread support is for unionizing. Berliner said he’s met with all hourly employees in small groups over the last few weeks and “didn’t hear much of any interest in the union.”

Teamsters Local Union 665, meanwhile, said there is “significant interest in unionizing” at Amy’s but that “many workers at the facility are scared of openly supporting the union because of concerns regarding retaliation or harassment.”

What’s the deal with the boycott?

National food justice nonprofit Food Empowerment Project and Veggie Mijas, a vegan-focused collective, were among the first to call for a boycott of Amy’s products.

Two Bay Area worker-owned grocery stores, Mandela Grocery Cooperative in Oakland and Other Avenues in San Francisco, have since stopped selling the company’s foods. In an open letter to Amy’s, Other Avenues staff wrote that they’re “concerned that the majority of affected workers are black and brown women, and are disappointed that this abuse originates from one of our favorite local Northern California vendors.”

Adrionna Fike, a worker-owner at Mandela, said she was shocked to read the headlines about unsafe working conditions at Amy’s. Mandela has since replaced the approximately 25 frozen and canned Amy’s products it once sold with food from other companies.

“Amy’s has a reputation of being a good company,” Fike said. “It’s sad but hopefully this will wake companies up.”

Factory workers assemble Amy’s Kitchen’s popular organic food products in Santa Rosa.


Factory workers assemble Amy’s Kitchen’s popular organic food products in Santa Rosa.

Samantha Laurey/The Chronicle

San Francisco’s worker-owned Rainbow Grocery, which sells more than 100 Amy’s products online, has so far refrained from an official boycott. Workers have, however, requested a cooperative-wide meeting for Wednesday to discuss the controversy and potential next steps, said Cody Frost, a Rainbow worker-owner who oversees public relations.

“We’re trying to see what is our best way of actually supporting the people who are affected by what’s happening,” Frost said.

Amy’s said the boycotts, which don’t appear to have spread to mainstream grocery stores, haven’t significantly impacted sales.

Ojeda said she supports a boycott to draw attention to the worker demands.

“A lot of people like Amy’s food. (Customers should) be more conscious about what they’re doing and have compassion for all the workers,” she said.

How has Amy’s leadership responded?

Amy’s has denied the workers’ allegations and blamed “misguided social media posts” for sparking the boycotts. In an interview with The Chronicle, Berliner defended the company’s safety record and treatment of employees.

While an online Amy’s statement says, “We are concerned about a union’s impact on our ongoing culture of compassion, respect, fairness, collaboration and personal empowerment that has always been so key to our success.” Berliner said he welcomes a union vote.

“We’re totally open to having an election that would give every one of them a right to cast a ballot … and whatever they choose, we’re happy with,” Berliner said. “But this continuous trying to ruin the reputation of the company and boycotting of our products is hurting the very employees the union says they want to take care of.”

In an open letter posted to the Amy’s website, Berliner said the company plans to invest $50 million in “safety-related projects” over the next five years, including systems that will move products on conveyor belts rather than racks and hydraulic bucket lifters so workers won’t need to lift raw food ingredients.

After learning of Ojeda’s complaint, Amy’s said it voluntarily invited Cal/OSHA for a factory inspection in January. Cal/OSHA declined to comment, citing an open investigation.

Has Cal/OSHA investigated workplace hazards at Amy’s before?

Yes. Cal/OSHA found several “serious” violations in three 2019 accident investigations, according to the state agency’s records. This included an employee whose finger was amputated after it was caught in a wrapper machine and another who was hospitalized for third degree burns from hot soy milk while making tofu.

Amy’s faced approximately $90,000 in penalties from the 2019 Cal/OSHA citations.

Elena Kadvany is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: elena.kadvany@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ekadvany



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