What really stood out to Ruby Luna about Amy’s Kitchen was the message. “They said, ‘We are like family here,’ and when they said that, they made me feel like I was going to be part of a family work environment,” says Luna, a former Amy’s Kitchen employee. “And that’s something I needed at the time.”
Amy’s Kitchen, a privately held company run by the Berliner family, has been making vegetarian and organic frozen and prepared foods since 1987, and since then, it has projected an ethos of environmental consciousness and general wholesomeness. Luna started on the enchilada line at Amy’s San Jose plant in December 2021, and then became a machine operator in the pizza department after four months. She liked the work and her coworkers, and it felt like a steady job. But soon, she noticed that the supervisor on the enchilada and pizza lines was acting strange. “He hangs around with all the younger girls in the group,” she says. He would laugh with them, buy them lunch, and Luna noticed he often had his hands in his pockets. “It just kind of looked like inappropriate behavior,” she says.
Maria*, another worker on the pizza line, is even more explicit about this supervisor’s behavior: “He puts his hand inside [his coat] and talks to the girls, [we] can see that he’s touching himself,” she says via a translator. (Some employees who spoke to Eater requested anonymity; pseudonyms are denoted throughout with asterisks.)
In interviews with six employees at the San Jose plant — all of whom were employed there at the time they spoke to Eater — workers outline a pattern of sexually inappropriate behavior and allege that HR did not sufficiently act on complaints of harassment. The workers were in the middle of an organization drive with Unite Here Local 19, and hoped a union could help address these concerns and improve the work environment. In June, the union filed nine Unfair Labor Practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against the plant for discharging, disciplining, or threatening to discipline employees for union involvement and participation in union activities; surveilling or creating the appearance of surveilling employees; and “offering to address employee grievances or complaints in order to dissuade employees in their union support.”
However, on July 18, Amy’s Kitchen announced it would be shutting down its San Jose plant, which opened less than a year ago in an expansion meant to help the company meet consumer demand during the pandemic. The shutdown would affect 300 workers. In a letter workers were given about an hour after they clocked in that day, Amy’s Kitchen announced that employees would be “relieved of their duties” effective July 19, the following day, and that the plant would close on September 16, 2022.
Company representatives did not address questions regarding specific allegations, but said in a more general statement: “Amy’s Kitchen is dedicated to maintaining a safe and supportive workplace for our employees. We have robust protocols in place to protect our employees and are committed to investigating all human resource claims in a timely, thorough, and objective manner. We remain disheartened that unions have employed malicious tactics rather than simply calling for a free and fair election overseen by the NLRB, allowing individuals to make their own decision regarding representation.”
Some workers feel the closure is a union-busting tactic. “Workers were blind-sided with the news,” reads a statement from Unite Here Local 19. The union outlines how, since workers announced organization efforts, “they were met with captive audience meetings and instances of retaliation and intimidation.” It alleges that “Amy’s closure of the facility is part of their overall campaign orchestrated against workers.”
“Amy’s claims we are their family, but no one treats their families this way,” Luna said in a statement after the San Jose plant closed. “We are asking the public to continue boycotting their products until they meet with our Union to address our concerns and the devastating impact to our lives.”
In January of this year, reporting about working conditions at Amy’s Santa Rosa, California plant surfaced amid a unionization effort with Teamsters Local 665. Workers alleged that conditions at the plant led to rampant worker injury, and that workers didn’t have regular access to water or bathroom breaks. An organizer with the Teamsters said, “I have never, in my career, seen the level of workplace injuries that I’m seeing now.”
Workers at the San Jose plant claimed they faced similarly unsafe conditions that they allege resulted in injuries; they also claimed that they faced cruel treatment from supervisors, including being denied bathroom breaks. One worker, Maricela, told NBC News in July that she has a burn on her neck that she alleges was caused by a plate that flew out of a malfunctioning hot oven; in that same report, Luna alleged that supervisors ridiculed Maricela for crying over her injury. Luna also told NBC she was given a “point” for taking time off to recover from an injury sustained on the job. “Once a worker receives 15 points, they are fired,” reports NBC.
Sonia, who began working in enchilada packing in October 2021 and moved to enchilada assembly in June 2022, tells Eater via a translator she developed extreme pain and paralysis in her foot while using the machines, and that others using the machines complained of similar pain. She also claims Amy’s increased the speed of machines at the plant while she was there, which made them more difficult to use. “Today [the machine] is really intense, really really fast,” she says. Workers at Amy’s Santa Rosa plant also claim Amy’s was speeding up the line with fewer workers, which led to more injuries. In a statement to Eater at the time of our previous report, Amy’s Kitchen said, “Line speeds are created with safety in mind… It is not permitted to exceed the maximum line speed.”
However, workers of the San Jose plant also outline a particular pattern of harassment, ageism, and gendered abuse and say their complaints were either dismissed or they received retaliation for speaking out.
On June 3, a worker filed a complaint to Amy’s about a string of domestic violence incidents taking place at the plant over a period of three days in May, involving one worker repeatedly slapping another. Other workers attempted to speak to HR about the issue, but allege the company did nothing, despite rapidly firing workers in the past for similar physical altercations.
Workers at the San Jose plant also allege a pattern of supervisors demonstrating preferences for younger women. “I’ve seen there’s a difference between the way that some of the supervisors treat the older women and the younger women,” says Belia, who worked at the San Jose plant for nine months before it closed. “They’ve given the older women the jobs that are heavier and put more pressure on them,” she says via a translator. “For the younger women, they spend a lot of the day talking and laughing with one supervisor in particular,” the same supervisor who was allegedly touching himself.
Multiple workers say they attempted to speak to managers about the supervisor’s behavior. Maria says a manager “looked like she was in shock” when she was told what was happening, asked Maria to write down a complaint, and said the company would investigate. However, she believes “they didn’t do anything about it, because now he [was] getting worse.” Somehow, though, Maria believes the supervisor was informed that she was the one who made the complaint, leading him to confront her. “He called me because he had a write-up for me. I asked him why he gave me a write-up, and he said, ‘I’m going to give it to you, because I heard you were talking about me going out with the youngest people.’”
Luna also brought up the situation to HR, informing them she felt the supervisor was not only acting inappropriately, but also regularly disregarded work concerns unless they were raised by a younger woman. But she says when she spoke to HR about what was happening, she was pulled into an office with the supervisor in question, and asked to speak about the situation in front of him. “She put me on the spot and I thought that was really, really unprofessional of her,” she says, and in the moment, she denied what she had seen. “I don’t know what tactic she was doing or what, but I feel like they’re all in it together.”
Sofia* and her husband, Diego*, both worked at the San Jose plant after the pandemic made it difficult to continue their fruit cart business. Sofia also worked on the enchilada line for a time, and says one day this past May, a manager came up to her and began to massage her shoulders. “I said I felt uncomfortable with him touching me, so please don’t don’t do that. He looked at me and laughed,” she says via a translator. She didn’t go to HR about the incident, because she believed it would be pointless.
However, she alleges she and her husband were retaliated against because she spoke back to the manager who touched her. Sofia alleges the supervisor asked other girls on the line not to speak to her, and to report back to him about her behavior. She also believes that they’ve been victim to inconsistent patterns of reprimand; whereas different supervisors have remained at work despite complaints against them, Diego was suspended on June 29 after a sexual harassment complaint was made against him. Sofia says she is confident her husband is innocent; she says they were always together on the line and anywhere else, because he has a physical disability that requires her assistance.
lauren Ornelas, founder of the Food Empowerment Project, a vegan food justice organization that has been working with Amy’s Kitchen workers on encouraging consumer boycotts, is horrified at the treatment workers say they faced. “They try to denigrate these people,” she says. She’s positive Amy’s Kitchen shutting down the San Jose plant was related to worker organizing. “We know from the workers, they were hiring new people, they were doing upgrades [to] the facility,” she says. And if it’s not, “then [CEO and founder] Andy Berliner and all the leadership at Amy’s Kitchen need to prove it had nothing to do with it.”
On August 2, workers and supporters from Unite Here Local 19, Teamsters Local 665, and the Food Empowerment Project rallied outside the San Jose plant. “In the last few months, Amy’s Kitchen workers organized work actions to demand respect and justice on the job,” said Tho Do, Unite Here Northern California organizing director, in a statement. “They were met with captive audience meetings, threats, intimidation and retaliation from management. The closure of this facility is part of the company’s overall campaign orchestrated against its workers.” The organizations also noted an issuance from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) recently concluded with Cal/OSHA fining Amy’s over $20,000 and citing the company for 13 safety violations at its Santa Rosa plant, three of which were considered “serious,” including substandard eyewash stations and exposed machinery where limbs and clothing could get caught.
Workers and Unite Here Local 19 are demanding Amy’s Kitchen management meet with them to discuss a number of unanswered questions. In a statement of demands, the union says it wants to discuss severance, health care, and recall rights. “We want ALL Amy’s workers [to] have the right to choose the Union or not, without intimidation [or] retaliation from management like we experienced,” it reads. Unite Here is also encouraging consumers to continue boycotting Amy’s Kitchen until workers receive better health insurance, pay, safety accommodations, and until the company agrees not to interfere with union organizing. “Amy’s is a company that has built itself around caring about these things, calling the workers ‘family,’ saying they care about the environment,” said Ornelas. “Well, what about the environment those workers are in?”