Workers assemble 'Greek Inspired Red Rice & Veggies' frozen meals at the Amy's Kitchen plant in Santa Rosa, on May 16, 2022. The company has been in hot water over allegations that numerous workers have been injured at the plant. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)
Cecilia Luna Ojeda lives with chronic pain after injuries she said she sustained working the assembly lines for popular organic meal producer Amy’s Kitchen.
“Almost every day I’m working with pain, and almost every day I have to take pain-relievers,” said Luna Ojeda, 39, in Spanish.
Ergonomic hazards, production speeds that turned too fast, and management that didn’t prioritize safety pushed her and numerous other co-workers to get hurt and even require surgeries, she said.
“There are already many people injured and others working with pain,” said Ojeda, who officially complained to state safety and health regulators about the company’s Santa Rosa plant in January of this year.
“That’s why I’m speaking up, because I’m not afraid anymore,” she said. “We shouldn’t be afraid to defend one’s rights as a worker, as a person.”
Stories like Ojeda's and that of other workers who allege they were injured working for Amy’s Kitchen have hit the company’s socially responsible image. And in recent months, the organization has responded with a greater emphasis on safety measures, according to employees of the frozen meal producer, one of the top in the U.S.
This comes as Amy’s Kitchen, a 35-year-old family-owned business that pledges goodness to people and the planet, now faces a nascent consumer boycott, a workforce debating whether to unionize, and a California Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) investigation prompted by three complaints about the Santa Rosa plant earlier this year, including Luna Ojeda’s.
The agency is expected to release its findings — and any citations if violations were found — in coming weeks, after visiting the facility for what company staffers described as a “six-day, wall-to-wall” inspection.
Amy’s Kitchen representatives have mostly denied the injury allegations, and insist that the company has always been committed to workers’ safety. But employees said the plant has made recent improvements aimed at preventing repetitive motion injuries on meal assembly lines, a main focus of the complaints to Cal/OSHA.
Workers notice recent changes
For one thing, according to workers, the pace of work is slower, and production speeds are frequently monitored during each shift. Most employees are also now rotated on a daily basis among different assembly lines — from red rice and vegetable plates to ravioli bowls, for example.
Roughly 680 people are employed at the Amy’s Kitchen plant in Santa Rosa. On a recent morning, nearly two dozen women on the burrito line folded tortillas with bean-and-cheese filling, and placed them on conveyor belts. Most of them were first-generation Latina immigrants, and chatted amiably while working at an impressive speed for this home cook: up to 10 burritos per minute per person, according to the company.
"The number of required movements for each worker and the tasks themselves were designed with occupational therapists and ergonomic specialists, as well as worker input," said Paul Schiefer, senior director of sustainability and communications for Amy’s Kitchen. Employees also take hourly breaks to stretch and move positions along the assembly line.
“We have studied this work closely, not just ourselves, but with outside experts, and really believe it to be safe and appropriate and actually better than how most companies would operate a line like this,” said Schiefer, who has worked at the company for 15 years.
“It’s our safety record that we should be judged on,” Schiefer added.
But despite the relative calm on the burrito line, several employees are laboring through pain in their hands, according to workers. Some have been reassigned elsewhere because of injuries.
Amy's safety record
One way to assess the injury rate at Amy’s Kitchen is to review statistics kept by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Those suggest the company’s injury rate is half that of its industry, which is frozen specialty food manufacturing. The figures are not always reliable, however, as they depend on businesses self-reporting work-related injuries to federal and state regulators. Media investigations have revealed that some companies, like Tesla, underreported.
Worker accidents at the Amy’s Kitchen Santa Rosa plant between 2016 and 2019 led Cal/OSHA to issue fines of nearly $106,000 in initial penalties, which the company contested. In one of those accidents, an employee’s finger was amputated on a food packaging line; in another, a worker sustained third-degree burns to their foot and ankle when they spilled hot soy milk used to make tofu, according to Cal/OSHA inspection reports.
The company is scheduled for a settlement conference on June 22 to discuss most of the citations, according to a Cal/OSHA spokesperson.
Schiefer characterized the accidents as “isolated incidents,” and said the company has taken decisive corrective actions to ensure they don’t happen again.
“We as a company deeply believe in getting rid of every risk we can and doing our absolute best to make this the safest place possible,” said Schiefer. “But there is an inherent risk in any type of physical work, and I think it's something that's just important to remember as we enjoy meals or anything that’s the byproduct of human work.”
An industry leader
Amy’s Kitchen co-founders Andy and Rachel Berliner tapped into a growing market for ready-made vegetarian and vegan dishes. The couple started selling home-cooked pot pies in Sonoma County in 1987. Their business has since become the sixth-largest frozen entrée company in the U.S., with nearly $600 million in revenue in 2020 and more than 2,700 employees.
The self-described values-led company is still owned by the Berliners, and sells hundreds of products made at production plants in Santa Rosa, San Jose, Idaho and Oregon.
CEO Andy Berliner has famously said that employees are essential to the company’s success and are treated “like family.”
Yet Luna Ojeda described her experience at Amy’s Kitchen as far from happy. The 17-year veteran of the organization said it wasn’t uncommon for her and others to be assigned a week at a time on the same assembly line for burritos and pies, run with ergonomically problematic machinery only recently replaced.
As recently as February 2019, Ojeda reported to her supervisor that one of her shoulders hurt because the pie line was going too fast. She’d already injured the other shoulder at work, she said, so she asked her supervisor to change her to a different task, and give her arms a break. But the supervisor sent her back to the line, she said, arguing she didn’t have a doctor’s note.
When Ojeda took her case to the human resources department at the plant, she was reassigned, to weighing food plates over and over for weeks. The pain in her shoulders and hands resurfaced. Finally, in April, two months after she first alerted supervisors she was in pain, a doctor put her hand in a brace that immobilized her arm, and the company sent her home to rest.
Since then, Ojeda has been assigned to different meal assembly lines, but she still has to go to doctor visits to manage the pain. Her right wrist developed carpal tunnel syndrome, she said, stemming from an earlier injury she sustained in 2006 while manning the company’s soup canning line. The tendon in her wrist had basically broken, she said, and she underwent a surgery to repair it.
As a mother of four, Ojeda said she regrets that the pain she’s lived with now for years has prevented her from being able to pick up her kids when they were toddlers, or play ball with them at the beach as they got older. “It’s sad not being able to do activities with my children because I’m injured. It’s like, they robbed me of moments with my family,” she said.
A handful of worker-owned grocery stores have dropped Amy’s Kitchen products from their shelves, including Mandela Grocery Cooperative in Oakland and People’s Food Co-op in Portland, Oregon. Coven Market in Hamilton, Ontario, joined the boycott last week, said Lauren Ornelas, founder of Food Empowerment Project, which is based in San Jose.
Ornelas acknowledged their efforts are unlikely to make much of a dent in the company’s profits, as it continues to sell its products at large grocery chain stores like Costco and Safeway. The biggest impact has been to Amy’s Kitchen’s reputation, she said.
“The company is not living up to the reputation that they've created for themselves,” said Ornelas, adding that she became a vegan 30 years ago because she cares about the way food is produced. “This is a company that has claimed to care about their workers. But it's in stark contrast to the environment that they've created for the workers as well as the health of the workers.”
Union organizers with Teamsters Local 665 said that Amy’s Kitchen employees reached out to them late last year to begin conversations about organizing. Shortly after, the company hired Quest Consulting, a bilingual firm with a “union busting” reputation among labor organizers, who say the consultants’ goal is to discourage workers from unionizing.
"The consultants told employees that the union would charge membership dues but may not keep their promises," said Luna Ojeda. That narrative is consistent with previous media reports based on recordings of those meetings. While Amy’s representatives acknowledged they would rather not have a unionized workforce, they countered that Quest’s job was only to educate workers and train managers to answer questions about unions.
“We would prefer to maintain the direct relationship that we've always had. A lot of good has come out of it,” said Schiefer. “But at the end of the day, our employees’ choice is what matters the most. And we would honor whatever choice they make.”
Ojeda said that while she is glad about the recent safety improvements, they should be enshrined in a union contract that discourages managers from increasing production speeds again later on. “I would like for these small changes to improve and be permanent so that we can avoid other people getting hurt,” she said.
Tony Delorio, secretary-treasurer at Teamsters Local 665, assisted Ojeda in filing her complaint with Cal/OSHA. He also submitted a challenge to the business’ B Corp status, certified for high social and environmental performance, which he said is yet to be decided.
But not every worker favors a union. Margarita Vazquez Zamudio came out of meetings with Quest consultants convinced she doesn’t want to pay union membership dues for services she said are not needed.
Vazquez Zamudio believes the safety of workers is a top priority for the company’s owner, Andy Berliner, and in her 26 years making enchiladas, lasagna and burritos at Amy’s Kitchen, management has been responsive to her concerns, she said.
But even Vazquez Zamudio applauded that the pace of production — and the number of repetitive motions she and others must make — has slowed down in the last two months, she said. Berliner ordered the change after employees told him directly that faster speeds were putting them at risk, she added.
“The owner told them to slow it down,” said Vazquez Zamudio, 60, who regularly wears protective wristbands at work. “Why do we want a union if the company listens to us?”
In a statement responding to worker reports of changes at the Santa Rosa plant, Schiefer said that production quotas are based on factors such as staffing and safety, as well as the availability of ingredients and equipment.
"Over the last few months, Amy's Kitchen has been able to return to more normal plant operations as the impacts of COVID and the nation's labor shortage have lessened,” wrote Schiefer. “Now that we're experiencing more consistent staffing, we're pleased to learn that many workers feel that the lines are moving more slowly."
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