Few frozen food brands are as well known in the United States as Amy’s Kitchen, a privately owned, California-based company that makes organic, vegetarian meals that can be found in most frozen-food aisles. Amy’s Kitchen has also long been reputed for, and markets itself as, a socially conscientious manufacturer and employer.

Some workers at Amy’s Kitchen, however, tell a different story. As Joshua Bote recently reported for SFGate, “Workers at the Amy’s Kitchen factory in Santa Rosa have filed a complaint with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, with allegations that have put the beloved Bay Area food brand’s feel-good credo to ‘share in the love’ into question. The Cal/OSHA complaint, filed Jan. 20, follows an NBC News investigation in which Amy’s workers at the Santa Rosa plant allege unrelenting managers, poor working conditions and demanding production mandates.”

In this interview, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Carmen Angiano and MariCruz Meza, two workers at the Santa Rosa plant, about working conditions at the plant and how management has responded to workers’ attempt to organize. Carmen Angiano is an 18-year Amy’s Kitchen worker who was injured at work; she has family members working at the same plant and is tired of being mistreated and of lies coming from the company. MariCruz Meza has worked at Amy’s Kitchen for eight years. She has endured several incidents when the company health insurance wouldn’t pay her family’s medical bills and has even been sent collections.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us.

Few frozen food brands are as well-known in the United States as Amy’s Kitchen, a privately owned California-based company that makes organic vegetarian meals that can be found in most frozen food aisles. Amy’s Kitchen has long been reputed for and markets itself as a socially conscientious manufacturer and employer. On the careers tab of the Amy’s website, potential applicants are told, “First and foremost, Amy’s Kitchen is a family. We don’t answer to the boardroom full of suits. We answer to ourselves and to the people who eat our food. That’s how we’ve been able to help pioneer the organic food industry and cook great food that satisfies the hearts and souls, taste buds, and dietary needs of people all around the world. None of this would be possible without the 2,000 plus employees that make our big, happy family.”

Moreover, in a popular Facebook post from the company in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Amy’s also stated, “At Amy’s, our heroes are our employees on the front lines who are coming to work every day so that we can continue to make food for people to eat. Thank you for everything you do, and thank you to all of the brave men and women working on the front lines today.”

Workers at Amy’s Kitchen, however, tell a different story. As Joshua Bote recently reported for SFGATE, “Workers at the Amy’s Kitchen factory in Santa Rosa have filed a complaint with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, with allegations that have put the beloved Bay Area food brand’s feel-good credo to ‘share in the love’ into question. The Cal/OSHA complaint filed on Jan. 20 follows an NBC News investigation in which Amy’s workers at the Santa Rosa plant allege unrelenting managers, poor working conditions, and demanding production mandates. One worker told NBC News that workers on the production line are expected to produce more than 25,000 plates of food in a single eight-hour shift. The complaint alleged that workers were not given time for water or bathroom breaks because of the expectation to meet those demands. Another worker said working at Amy’s felt like she’s ‘in a cage, because they’re always checking us, and there are cameras.’ The OSHA complaint, according to NBC News, listed locked fire exits and hostility from managers when safety concerns are raised. Some even reported injuries that were left untreated or ignored by supervisors, resulting in chronic pain.”

Now, the company’s founders Andy and Rachel Berliner denied the claims in the NBC News report. In an open letter posted to the Amy’s website they write that the report filled with allegations of worker mistreatment “does not reflect who we are as a company and the values we uphold. We’ve always recognized that making food is difficult, and our first company value – Taking care of each other – Means making Amy’s a workplace that takes care of the whole person. We have invested heavily in safety. Our rate of injuries is well below others in the industry.”

To talk about all of this and to hear firsthand from some of the folks who work day in, day out to make Amy’s the reputable, profitable company that it is, I’m honored to be joined today by Carmen Angiano and Maricruz Meza. Now, Carmen is an 18-year Amy’s Kitchen worker who was injured at work when she had her tendons ripped. She has family members working there as well and is tired of being mistreated and of the lies coming from the company. Maricruz Meza is an eight-year worker at Amy’s Kitchen. She has endured several incidents when the company health insurance wouldn’t pay for her family’s medical bills and has even been sent collections. Carmen, Maricruz, thank you so much for joining me today. Muchas gracias por hablar conmigo hoy

Maricruz Meza:       Gracias

Carmen Angiano:    Muchas gracias

Maximillian Alvarez: So, I was wondering if we could start by just letting viewers and listeners know a bit more about you and the work that you’ve done at Amy’s since you started there. Could you tell us a bit about how you came to work at Amy’s, the kind of work that you’ve been doing there before and during the pandemic?

Carmen Angiano:  [interpreting Spanish] Yes. My name is Carmen Angiano, and I have been working at Amy’s Kitchen since 2003. I started working in the tortilla room where they make the pizza dough and stuff like that. After that, I went to go move to the production line, and I went to work in the pastas and the sauce room.

After that, they did close up the sauce room, so then they moved me to the pie room where I injured my neck. After that, they did move me to the production line, where I actually was working on the production line filling up the bowls with food. And I had an injury to my arm where I ripped my tendons, and that’s where I’m at right now. My tendons are ripped to my arm.

We want to make things better. We want the boss to sit down and talk to us. We want things permanently there because things change constantly and we want this to be done. We are reaching out to the union to help us because we want something solid. We want this permanently, not changing 24/7 like they always do. So we ask for people to support us and help us in that form.

Maricruz Meza:     [interpreting Spanish] Hi, my name is Maricruz Meza. I’ve been working at Amy’s for eight years. I’ve been working as a line lead for six years. I started at Amy’s in the production line. I worked on the burrito line for a month so I can be trained on that, so I can try to learn how to do the burrito line. After that, they sent me to another month to do the enchilada line. Right now what I do is I run lines, which are racking lines, which are the pies, the [raw] maker and the hamburger lines.

Like six years ago, I hurt my hand because I was working on the line and the rack from the line actually hit me with the door of the freezer. They did send me to Concentra, but I actually feel that that doctor did not actually do anything for me because he didn’t check me. He just asked me, do you feel good? He never actually came close to me to physically check my hand or anything until I actually asked him for x-rays because I needed to make sure that nothing was broken in my hand.

I was restricted to only be able to lift five pounds. Back then what they did to the people that were injured, they put them to cut frozen broccoli. So you had to work eight hours with a knife cutting frozen broccoli. And that’s a very hard task to do, especially when you’re injured with your hands. So since I was a line lead, what they had me do, I had to carry a 50-pound box of broccoli and put it on the table, frozen, so the ladies and myself can actually cut it. And I had to make sure that it was always stocked, and then I had to actually take the cut broccoli off and weigh it so I know how much is going into the pallet jack.

The insurance that we have, it’s been almost like five times they sent me to collection. Most of the time they’ve sent me to collections is because I’ve had an emergency and had to rush my children to the emergency room. I’ve had bills of $3000, $5000, $1000. And insurance there, last year I actually had to pay $160 biweekly. But this year it did change. Now I’m paying over $250 biweekly. They did mention to us about the insurance being raised. We got a $2 increase. They didn’t tell us before that.

The production lines actually produced 25,716 plates in eight and a half hours. They had said that they were going to discontinue lines where people had to be real close to each other because of COVID. The pie line, there’s no shields, no curtains, anything to divide the workers, and the workers are working right next to each other. And they did not discontinue that line. That line’s still working.

They were not going to increment the case goal, which they started off with 21,000 and then they moved up to 24,000 and then 24,600. And right now it’s 25,716 plates that they do in the eight-and-a-half hour shift. And that’s what they say that comes out in a day. We get almost 30,000 plates a day.

Maximillian Alvarez: My God. That is just an astounding amount of plates that you all are producing every shift. And this is something that we’ve seen in a number of companies where workers are being mistreated and overworked is that a lot of companies have been seeing record demand and even major profits during the pandemic. And I imagine a place like Amy’s has been a beneficiary of that because with fewer people going to restaurants, more people are cooking at home. And so, like Kellogg’s, like other brand name companies that we have covered here at the Real News, a lot of that production and meeting those production quotas, that’s the workers who are doing that.

Maricruz Meza:      [interpreting Spanish] Yes, and the companies do make a profit and then we’re sure of that. But when they do our evaluations every year, the only raises they actually give us is 20 cents, maybe 40 cents a year. And we ask why, and they say it’s because the company’s not at its best, it’s not making any profits and stuff. That’s why they hold back on giving them raises.

Maximillian Alvarez: Man, how many times have we heard that before? I wanted to ask if you all could say a little bit more about what an eight-and-a-half hour shift looks like for you. Because you both have sustained injuries on the job and we have seen reports of more injuries coming out of the Amy’s manufacturing plant. So I wanted to ask how common are these injuries in the type of work that you do and what other issues are workers raising right now that the public needs to know about?

Maricruz Meza:        [interpreting Spanish] The ladies that actually work the burrito line actually wrap burritos for five hours. Then they go and work in one hour separating tortillas, and then another hour in the filling section, and then another hour when you set up the burritos for them to go into the freezer area to get frozen. But there’s sometimes that you land the right way to work in that area, but most of the time you’re twisted. So you have to twist to be able to set them up. So you’re always working uncomfortable.

Also on the pie line, which is a line that I work on, the ladies actually don’t have a real working station because they have to twist to be able to get the dough for the pie. And the person that’s actually filling up the dough machine, the shooter, actually has to overstretch because she has to reach all the way to the top of the machine to fill it up with the dough. So she’s reaching above and beyond. When we cover the pie up, we have to put a lot of pressure on it so that the vegetables and the sauce and everything gets all mixed in correctly.

Carmen Angiano:   [interpreting Spanish] And the plate line, you have to be rapid filling up the lines with plates because if they find a little spot between the plates, they get mad. The line has to be filled with plates. So people that are injured, it’s very hard to maintain that speed.

I have had times where I almost cry at work, and I do cry because of the way my arm swells up because of using it so much and I get in so much pain, but I have to continue working. I do get criticized a lot by other people at work, saying, “It’s because you don’t want to work because you’re lazy.” And [I’m] like, “I’m not lazy. It’s just, I don’t have to be everybody’s friend to get along with them, but I’m in pain.” I don’t like to lie, and they’ve always told us that if something like this happens to go report it. And I have, I have reported it and nothing gets done. But they always tell me that it’s a lie. It’s not a lie. I don’t lie. I’ve had confrontations with Noel, who is the general manager. And I’ve told him, “I don’t lie. I don’t need to lie. I don’t like to lie. I tell you the truth, whether it benefits me or not, but the truth has to come out.”

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I can’t thank you both enough for speaking that truth and talking with us today, and we will do whatever we can on this end to help spread the word. And I wanted to kind of pick up on that point, Carmen, and ask how management has responded to these worker complaints and to even the efforts by workers to organize at this plant.

Carmen Angiano:  [interpreting Spanish] I’ve always worked so hard to feed myself. Nobody at work has ever helped me in feeding my family. I have four kids. I’ve always worked hard since I was 16 years old. I have maintained my kids. Nobody can say that they’ve helped me. I have never asked for a dollar from the government. I’ve always worked real hard so I can support my family. Nobody there has ever helped us. So they’re good to criticize, but they don’t understand because they call us lazy, that these people that are in this movement are the lazy people. I’m not lazy.

There has been a lot of criticism there. Yes, I like to tell the truth. There’s been a lot of people that are saying that only the lazy people are the ones trying to form a union and trying to get help. No, I’m actually in this to help myself. But not only myself, to help my coworkers and everybody else because there’s a lot of people that are hurting there. Yes, everybody walks into the dining room saying, “This hurts, that hurts.” But when it’s time to actually face and speak up, nobody wants to because they get intimidated.

They have said that right now with this movement, they’ve been saying at the factory that the company’s going to close, that he’s going to go bankrupt, we’re going to lose our jobs. And I tell them, “Don’t be scared. That’s not going to happen. We need the help. We all need to speak up together so this stops happening.”

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and for viewers and listeners, this is by no means the first time that a company, a vegetarian/vegan company with progressive branding, has acted this way towards its workers. You all may recall that I, for my podcast Working People, spoke with former employees of the company No Evil Foods who were involved in a unionization drive there at the plant in North Carolina, a unionization drive that the company fought viciously before it eventually laid off its entire staff and moved its plant.

And Carmen and Maricruz, I wanted to ask where things are right now. We’ve been seeing some photos and videos of workers protesting and picketing, and we’ve seen folks from the community expressing support for you all. So I wanted to ask where things stand right now with this effort to hold Amy’s Kitchen accountable to its workers and what viewers and listeners out there can do to show solidarity with y’all.

Maricruz Meza:   [interpreting Spanish] Right now the process that we are at, the company actually hired six people to come and intimidate us and talk bad about the union to us. So they’re there to scare us, and I actually think that those people don’t get paid a little bit. When I was taken and given this meeting, the company said, “We don’t need third parties to come in between us. We need to have that communication open.” So my thing is, if they didn’t want third parties, why did they hire somebody from the outside to come and intimidate us and give us these meetings? I don’t understand that.

Maximillian Alvarez: We see it all the time, right? Every company has the same playbook when they’re trying to squash workers’ efforts to organize and advocate for themselves. They always say, oh, the union is a third party that’s going to get in between us, and we’re not going to be able to resolve issues one on one. Well, if you’re bringing in union busters, aren’t they the real third party? Because the union is the workers. And workers, as Carmen and Maricruz have already described, have had a lot of trouble resolving issues with management, whether that is in regards to their healthcare or to their working conditions, thus making the case that workers do need to form a union.

Maricruz Meza:      [interpreting Spanish] Right now, what we are all asking is for Andy [Berliner] to sit down and talk to us and our representatives so we can get something in writing and it can be permanently not taken away from us. Because right now, everything that they say, they change it whenever they want, and it’s towards their behalf when it fits them.

Carmen Angiano: [interpreting Spanish] The union busters actually have selected people that they walk up to and talk to. To me personally, they have not walked up and asked me, “How’s it going today? How’s the line?” Because they have noticed that… They select the people they want to talk to. And they know who’s in the movement and who’s not, but they do not talk to everybody. Why, if everybody are workers there?

Maximillian Alvarez: They’re trying to divide and conquer. Is that how it feels on the shop floor? Does it feel like they are pitting workers against each other? [Spanish].

Carmen Angiano:  Yes.

Maricruz Meza:    Yes.

Carmen Angiano: [interpreting Spanish] Yes. A lot of the people that I knew were there and the so-called friends don’t talk to me anymore. One of the leads I was really, really close to doesn’t talk to me anymore.

Maricruz Meza: [interpreting Spanish] I have also been told, “With what face do you show up back to work? Aren’t you embarrassed to come back to work?” And [I’ve] told them, “No, I’m not embarrassed to show up back to work because I am fighting for my rights.”

Carmen Angiano:   [interpreting Spanish] Last Friday, one of the coworkers that was outside came in and told me, “Aren’t you embarrassed to be doing this to the boss that actually feeds you?” I said, “No, the boss has never fed me. I worked for what I’ve earned to feed myself. He has never fed me. I’ve worked for what I have.” They told [me], “Aren’t you embarrassed because you eat from what you work on from the owner?” “No, the owner does not feed me. I eat from what I work on.” And people say that, yes, “Andy is a good person.” Yeah, he might be a good person, but the management that he has set up is not good management. They need to look into that because that’s who’s dividing everybody and they’re the ones that are mishandling the company.

I did tell my coworker, “No, I’m not ashamed of what I’m doing. I have not stolen anything. I have not killed anybody. I am fighting for my rights, and I’m fighting for the rights of my coworkers and everybody else.” And I have two of my kids that work there.

Maricruz Meza:   [interpreting Spanish] Just like I said earlier, I want to repeat, we want Andy to sit down with us and our representatives to make these improvements. We need these improvements and want these improvements.

Maximillian Alvarez: So that is Carmen Angiano, who has worked at Amy’s Kitchen in California for 18 years and was injured on the job, and Maricruz Meza, who has worked at Amy’s Kitchen for eight years and has endured several incidents when the company health insurance wouldn’t pay for her family’s medical bills. Carmen, Maricruz, thank you so much for joining me today.

Maricruz Meza:      [interpreting Spanish] Thank you for your time.

Maximillian Alvarez: For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support, become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important conversations and coverage just like this. Thank you so much for watching.

Maximillian Alvarez

Editor-in-Chief

Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
 
Email: max@therealnews.com
 
Follow: @maximillian_alv