a Black person points below their knee as another Black person wraps a bandage around their leg

Janet Barcenas has been working at Amy’s Kitchen in Santa Rosa, California, since 1993. She’s worked in the food production line, packaging, and as a team leader, now she has joined a group of workers from the organic frozen food company calling for safe working conditions, higher pay, and a union. 

“No matter how much we talk to the supervisors, to the managers, accidents keep happening,” Barcenas said. “They don’t take our opinions into account.”

Amy’s Kitchen, which has been in business for 35 years, has long held a reputation for being a socially responsible brand that uses organic ingredients and has said they “always cook [their] food with love.” But over the last decade, the Department of Labor’s Office of Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has fined the company more than $100,000 to settle federal health and safety violations at the California location, with additional incidents at the Oregon and Idaho locations. Complaints have detailed workers getting their fingers or pieces of their fingers amputated by machinery, and others detail an employee fracturing their hip while tripping over a forklift. Most recently, workers filed a safety complaint that was opened by Cal/OSHA on Jan. 26 of this year saying they have not been given access to the bathroom or drinking water during shifts. After multiple attempts at asking their managers for better working conditions went unheeded, they filed the complaint.

“You get tired of asking for changes when they don’t pay attention to you,” Barcenas said. “We have continued in this struggle even though they don’t want to pay attention to us.”

Barcenas, who is 54, was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. At the time, she was a team leader in the packaging line. She was allowed four months off for rest, but after six rounds of chemotherapy and 33 rounds of radiation, she had to take off a total of seven months. When she returned, her body was not the same and could not stand for the eight-to-nine-hour days. Her manager refused to let her maintain her position as team leader since she was no longer physically able to stand all day. She had to return to her previous position as a line worker in packaging, making less money than she did before.

“I liked being the team leader very much,” Barcenas said. 

Barcenas wrote a detailed letter to her manager expressing her interest in returning to the team leader position. She explained that she was still a detail-oriented person who liked to help her team workers. But, she was still denied because of her disability. 

“I felt very bad, I felt discriminated against,” Barcenas said. “They didn’t want to give me the position because I really couldn’t do it anymore. Now, I make less money.”

It was not until 2020 that Barcenas’ doctor eventually wrote a note asking to allow her to use a chair while on the line. Her supervisor rejected the request, but after a second request, allowed the chair, and added more for other workers. But, there are never enough chairs for the 600 workers. Last year, Barcenas also successfully organized with her colleagues for a salary raise. Barcenas and some other workers previously made $20 an hour, but after a brief labor stoppage, it was raised to $22 an hour. However, immediately after the raise was granted, their health insurance premiums increased, canceling out any salary increase.

According to a statement from Amy’s Kitchen spokesperson Paul Schiefer, they spend $17,500 per employee per year in health care benefits, which is $45 million a year. Amy’s Kitchen did not confirm or deny that insurance premiums were raised in 2021.

“Every year, they are changing the insurance,” Barcenas said. “That is why we need them to  value our work. We want good salaries and good insurance. We also want them to be respectful of us. We do our work with so much effort, dedication, and responsibility, but they still do not want to pay attention to us.”

Ever since the January 2022 OSHA complaint was filed and workers began sharing their concerns publicly, Amy’s Kitchen has brought in union-busters in an attempt to scare the workers against unionizing. Outside the plant, anti-union protestors have been seen chanting against forming a union. Inside, union-busters have given meetings on the “dangers” of unions, and they lurk around the production line and in the break rooms. According to Barcenas, the union-busters have created a misinformation campaign to scare workers from organizing.

“They just come to intimidate people,” Barcenas said. “But, I’m not scared. I know what the truth is.”

Amy’s Kitchen has denied all allegations. According to spokesperson Schiefer, Amy’s Kitchen reviewed the allegations, reached out to Cal/OSHA and fully cooperated in the audit process. They say they have a good working relationship with Cal/OSHA and conducted their own internal audit and completed a three-day audit by an outside firm that analyzed the safety record, disability programs and employee experience. They say the results show the allegations are false. 

“We respect our employees’ choice in a free and fair secret election,” Schiefer said in a statement. “However, this union is not the chosen voice of our employees. Amy’s respects our employees’ rights to vote for or against union representation through a free and fair secret election.”

Since filing the complaint, the Teamsters Local 665 union has been helping the workers with unionization efforts. According to Barcenas, the pressure to maintain line speed has gone down slightly since filing the complaint in January, but that’s not enough. They want a guarantee of safe conditions and comparable pay. 

Grocers and co-ops have been showing solidarity with the workers and are boycotting Amy’s Kitchen products. Barcenas said her manager has since held meetings intimidating the workers, saying that if nobody is buying Amy’s products, then there will be no more work for them. 

“He put that fear into them,” Barcenas said. “It made me very angry because we are there listening to everything he is talking about, and you feel like, ‘How come we can’t have an opinion on anything? How come we can’t say anything?’”

Lauren Ornelas, the founder and president of the board for Food Empowerment Project, said it is important that vegans, whom the company caters to, stand in solidarity with Amy’s Kitchen workers. Food Empowerment Project, along with Veggie Mijas, amplified the workers’ call for a boycott on Amy’s Kitchen products.   

“If they’re doing what they do for the sake of non-human animals, they certainly aren’t treating the women who work for their company with any amount of decency or respect,” Ornelas said. “Amy’s Kitchen is a symbol of suffering right now.”

Ornelas says that customers should continue to boycott their products and, more importantly, reach out to the company and let the company know via email, phone calls, and social media that they aren’t going to buy their products until the workers get the respect, pay, and protection that they deserve. Barcenas says they will continue with their organizing efforts until an agreement is reached.

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...