color photograph of a food production line factory
Amy's Kitchen workers prepare food at the Santa Rosa, California, factory in 2004. (Photo by /San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

It’s been a year since organic convenience and frozen food company Amy’s Kitchen unexpectedly shuttered its factory doors in San Jose, California, leaving more than 300 workers without a job. The decision was a part of a series of retaliatory blows against workers organizing for safer conditions, better pay, and unionization. Workers had been organizing with Unite Here, a union representing about 300,000 workers in Canada and the U.S. Leadership at Amy’s Kitchen had shown a pattern of retaliation, including firing a worker after he spoke to management about his concerns, a lack of bathroom breaks, and penalties for sick days. A year later, laid-off workers are still calling for a boycott of Amy’s Kitchen products, and current workers still say conditions have not improved.

“These workers were already facing so many injustices and were taking steps to protect themselves and one another,” said Tho Do, organizing director for Northern California’s Unite Here-Local 19, in a July press release. Unite Here-Local 19 represents workers in Silicon Valley, Yosemite, Coarsegold, Fresno, Visalia, and San Luis Obispo. “The panicked calls I received from these workers with fear in their voices stay with me to this day. These workers deserved better from Amy’s Kitchen.”

Employees at the Santa Rosa, California, manufacturing headquarters have experienced continued safety concerns. Over the last decade, the Department of Labor’s Occupational 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 describe 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, saying they have not been given access to the bathroom or drinking water during shifts. They say they filed the complaint after multiple requests to their managers for better working conditions went unheeded.

A current employee at the Santa Rosa facility, who has requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, says conditions have not improved. This employee has worked in packaging for Amy’s Kitchen since February 2005 and has suffered injuries three times. Most recently, in 2019, her arm was injured due to a machine’s packaging band going too quickly because management demanded higher product output. The employee says the managers will increase the band speed if they are behind schedule. Recently, the employee adds that the facility’s managers have started playing music to overshadow the machinery noise. However, workers wearing protective hearing equipment have complained that it creates a chaotic work environment. The employee said she has made two reports about her ear pain, but the only solution so far has been to create a music schedule inside the facility.

“I am not the only one; there are more people, but they don’t report, and they don’t come to the doctor,” she said. “I don’t know what will happen next if more people are going to continue to get sick from the ears.”

The employee also notes that she has not been paid since June 23, before the facility closed for routine summer inventory. The company closes for three weeks beginning the last week of June to conduct inventory. The employee agreed to receive a reduced salary on a “job sharing” rate but has yet to receive payment. 

Amy’s Kitchen did not respond to a request for comment.

Impacted workers called for a boycott of Amy’s Kitchen products in February 2022, and several grocers and co-ops have shown solidarity with the workers by declining to stock Amy’s Kitchen. Multiple food co-ops pulled Amy’s Kitchen products, including Mandela Grocery in Oakland, People’s Food Co-op in Portland, and Alberta Street Co-op in Portland. Workers have been keen to point out the contradiction between Amy’s Kitchen’s public image as a socially responsible brand that uses organic ingredients and the inhumane treatment of their workers. Former Amy’s Kitchen employee Alma Rosa likewise said she hopes Amy’s consumers will boycott the products in support of the worker’s unionizing efforts.

Rosa worked at the Amy’s Kitchen facility in San Jose from March 2021 until July 2022, packaging 60 frozen pizzas a minute for a year and four months. During her time there, she said the company lacked basic materials needed to safely do her job, like appropriate gloves to handle the frozen pizzas. The extreme exposure to frozen temperatures exacerbated her arthritis, and she now needs therapy for her hands.

“None of them [the workers in Santa Rosa and Petaluma] have a union, and none of them have benefits,” said Rosa. “They have nothing at all. I would like more people to have their benefits in order to have security.”

Rosa made $17 an hour without any additional benefits. In October 2021, she said she received a 24-cent raise while other colleagues’ raises varied between 3 and 18 cents. Rosa met with the head of production to ask why the raises were so paltry, only to be told the raise was what corresponded to each worker. Management told Rosa they would likely increase the number of pizzas she had to pack from 60 per minute to 80.

Rosa reports not having any bathroom breaks, having to wait until her 30-minute lunchtime to use the bathroom, and colleagues who were injured on the job and forced to continue working. According to Rosa, her male supervisor inappropriately engaged with younger female workers and developed romantic relationships with at least one of them, and she saw him making masturbatory gestures under his white coat in plain sight on the factory floor. Rosa reported this to the human resources department. She was told they would investigate the claims, but Rosa says that they did nothing, and his behavior continued until the factory was abruptly closed in July 2022. 

According to Rosa, management pushed workers to take the first week of July 2022 off without pay because the company was supposedly going to put in new machinery. On July 7, their bosses called them and told them they would be given another week off, this time with pay, because the equipment installation was incomplete. On July 18, the workers entered the factory as they usually did. They put on their robes, shoes, and hairnets and got to work until a supervisor told them to stop working—nothing would be done until further notice, and the plant would be shuttered.

“Workers are still working under a lot of pain, suffering, humiliation, and exploitative labor,” said Hector Guardado for a video produced by Food Empowerment Project. Guardado is a machine operator who worked at Amy’s Kitchen San Jose for almost two years. 

Food Empowerment Project, a vegan food justice organization that tracked three former Amy’s Kitchen workers a year after the layoffs, revealed current employees are also reporting a hostile work environment filled with animosity and division. 

Meanwhile, Amy’s Kitchen has expanded its franchise to include a Southern California drive-thru in Thousand Oaks while naming a new company president and reshuffling leadership

The Santa Rosa employee said internal union support has somewhat died down in the last year ever since the San Jose facility closed.

“A lot of people were scared they would close the factory, and we would be left without jobs,” she said. “Others say it is out of loyalty to the employer.” 

The employee notes that some things at the facility have changed; for example, management no longer “screams” or “shouts” at employees, and there are janitors who are constantly cleaning the floors to avoid slipping and falling. When asked if she believes these changes have to do with the new president, the employee clarifies that she was unaware there was a new president.

“Because sometimes the ones that come in, like managers or so, sometimes you don’t even get to know them,” she said. “They are not always presented to you.”

The employee says she has not left Amy’s Kitchen yet because she wants to hold out for better working conditions after so many years.

“I am already hurt,” she said. “The doctors have suggested that I look for another job, and I told him, ‘But in another job like this I’m still going to use both hands.’”

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...