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HelloFresh Workers in Richmond Are Trying to Form First Union in 'Meal-Kit' Delivery Industry

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Business during the pandemic has been booming for meal-kit delivery companies like HelloFresh, the largest business in the industry. But workers at the company’s factory kitchen in Richmond say they are not sharing in the gains and that the company's rapid growth is leading to dangerous working conditions. So, they’re trying to unionize.

Lily Vasquez works at the Richmond facility, where she stocks kits with ingredients all day. She says she hopes a union could help give workers more say on the job and improve wages and working conditions. Vasquez says she doesn’t think customers understand what the wages and conditions are like for the people who make their meal kits.

“I know people receive the kits, but they don’t have any idea of how we’ve been treated in the company," Vasquez says. "These people are at their homes, they’re waiting for their food. They’re safe. But us, we have to go to work and be at risk."

Over the last few years, there has been an explosion of delivery and on-demand service companies where the labor is very removed from the final customer. Someone who orders from Blue Apron, Uber Eats, Instacart or HelloFresh may never encounter a worker. The food or meal can seem to just appear on their doorstep, a perk that companies like HelloFresh advertise.

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In promotional videos, HelloFresh says there is a lot of “magic behind the scenes” that makes the company’s meal kits possible. That magic behind the scenes is labor being done by people like Vasquez.

Vasquez says the workers in Richmond have been packing tens of thousands of meal kits a day during the pandemic. Instead of working at a single table, she says there’s now a stack of two or three shelves, so they have to bend up and down to get the different ingredients. She says everyone is rushing to meet their delivery targets every day.

Vazquez says it’s chaotic and dangerous at the facility. “There are empty pallets with plastic on them,” she says. “There are gloves and plastic on the floor." Several workers told KQED about accidents they recently witnessed involving loose plastic, pallets and tripping.

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A HelloFresh spokesperson responded in a statement, “Our employees are critical to everything we do, and we prioritize their health, safety and well-being above all else.” They added, “HelloFresh was among the first companies in the industry to introduce robust COVID-19 response measures.”

Even so, HelloFresh had a major COVID-19 outbreak in Richmond last summer. The Contra Costa County public health team intervened and worked extensively with the company to update their protocols. There were 171 confirmed cases.

Vazquez says she caught covid at the facility and then passed it to her son. Her mother lives with them, and because they were worried she would get sick, they had to send her to live with a relative.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has been a boon for companies that deliver groceries and food. It helped turn around business for HelloFresh. The company became profitable for the first time during the pandemic, and in 2020 it brought in a net profit of around $430 million.

Jessica Choy, deputy director with UNITE HERE, the union leading the unionization effort at HelloFresh, says unions need to mobilize quickly to protect workers as these new delivery and on-demand services take over sectors of the economy where unions were once relatively strong.

"This is just where the work went during the pandemic," Choy says. "Our members were laid off in hotels and food service and airports, and at the same time, companies like HelloFresh exploded."

Workers for delivery and ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber have been organizing in groups like Rideshare Drivers United. Earlier this year, Bay Area workers for the grocery delivery service Imperfect Foods formed a union.

The union effort at HelloFresh involves about 1,000 workers at the Richmond facility and at kitchens in Colorado. If the workers succeed, they’d become the first unionized group in the meal-kit industry.

Whether or not the union wins this vote, though, companies like HelloFresh are on notice. There’s widespread dissatisfaction from workers who feel like they’re not sharing in the "magic" of this growing on-demand economy.

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