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Amy’s Kitchen employee calls for ‘immediate action’ from Cal/OSHA at Santa Rosa production plant

Filed by union officials, the complaint states “there is an active organizing campaign... in response to egregious working conditions, high rates of injuries and ongoing exploitation.”|

A worker for Amy’s Kitchen has filed a formal complaint with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health asking regulators to intervene at the organic food behemoth’s Santa Rosa production plant.

The complaint was filed by Cecilia Luna Ojeda on behalf of all her co-workers at the Northpoint Parkway plant, which employs around 630 people, who cook, package, freeze and ship prepared meals prized by health-conscious consumers across the country.

The complaint was prepared by a representative of the local chapter of the Teamsters union, which is trying to organize Amy’s Kitchen workers.

It cites prior Cal/OSHA violations and says regulators issued more than $100,000 in penalties from 2016 to 2019 after investigations into the facility. Ojeda’s complaint argues that prior Cal/OSHA actions have not led to change at the plant, and further intervention is required.

“Without immediate action, workers will continue to get injured and/or possibly killed,” the complaint states.

Company officials say they take pride in caring for their workers’ safety and "definitely disagree“ with the assertion that workers could be injured or die without government intervention, company general counsel and personnel chief Mike Resch said in a Friday interview.

“The notion that the union is trying to single us out ... We are very proud of the work that we’ve done around safety,” Resch said. Recorded incidents of injuries at the Santa Rosa plant are below standards for the food production industry, Resch said.

“Our investments (in safety), our culture and our safety record are very powerful,” he said.

The complaint was written for Ojeda by Tony Delorio, an official with the Teamsters Local Union No. 665.

Delorio’s involvement confirms that the company, which grew from folksy roots in Sonoma County into a large corporation that employs more than 2,800 people, is confronting a union drive, at least in Northern California.

“Amy’s Kitchen is nonunion, however, there is an active organizing campaign with Teamsters Local 665, in response to egregious working conditions, high rates of injuries and ongoing exploitation,” Delorio wrote.

But worker safety is more urgent than a union drive, he wrote. “Hazards workers face require immediate attention from Cal/OSHA and continue to lead to injuries and possible fatalities every day.”

The complaint, sent to The Press Democrat by the union, was filed Jan. 20, four days after NBC published accounts of injuries and workplace hardships from Ojeda and four other Amy’s employees.

Amy’s Kitchen also has production plants in Oregon and Idaho. A complaint was also filed in Oregon on Thursday, according to a spokesperson with the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services.

Oregon OSHA has conducted three complaint-related inspections on the Amy’s Kitchen plant there. It issued a citation in 2018 that was withdrawn after a company appeal. Two other inspections in 2019 resulted in no citations.

An online federal database indicates OSHA conducted an inspection at an Amy’s facility in Pocatello, Idaho, in 2018, but it could not immediately be determined whether it resulted in any citations.

The most recent California complaint alleges hazards such as the ergonomics of working on production lines with fast-paced, repetitive motions that have led to back strain and chronic injuries. It also cites faulty machinery, blocked fire exits, chemical exposure and stress from quota pressures and shame directed at workers who ask for bathroom breaks.

Workers are expected to roll 10-12 burritos per minute or assemble as many as 72 plated dishes per minute, according to the complaint.

The production lines are designed for certain speeds, Resch said, but “when we identify and design the line speeds we do so with employee safety in mind.” Plant officials would not tolerate faulty machinery, blocked fire exits or shaming employees, Resch said.

“We would not tolerate shaming. That’s not something that is a part of the culture that (owners) Andy and Rachel (Berliner) have built at Amy’s,” he said. “If we learned of that kind of behavior we would address it.”

The complaint includes testimonials about injuries and hazards from Ojeda and six colleagues who are not named. In statements mostly translated from Spanish to English, the workers complained about back injuries, carpal tunnel issues, a shoulder injury and other physical ailments from working on the lines.

In the NBC story, an employee described being ordered to remove an arm brace she had received for her hand and work without it. Another employee who had cancer said she struggled to get compliance with a doctor’s request that she be allowed to work in a chair.

Amy’s runs free primary and preventive health care clinics for workers and their families here and in other states, Resch said. They’ve made changes to climate control, added chairs to the line “where we can,” increased automation and made other updates to lessen safety hazards at the Santa Rosa facility.

Executives from Amy’s have so far declined to address the specific allegations from the former employees in the NBC story, while saying their experiences are not representative of the company’s treatment of workers. The company had not seen the Cal/OSHA complaint Friday, Resch said.

“There is action underway to learn more and investigate and inquire and take action accordingly not only for their benefit but for the benefit of all our employees,” Resch said Friday. Many workers at the plant were upset by the NBC story, he said. “We are always trying to get feedback from our employees and at the same time I think the reaction internally is the way Amy’s has been portrayed is not reflective of who we are as a company.”

In a statement to The Press Democrat Monday afternoon, founder and Chief Executive Officer Andy Berliner said a core value of the company he and his wife launched 35 years ago was creating a workplace where people took care of one another ― caring for “the whole person.”

"When Rachel and I started Amy’s, we worked alongside our employees on the line and committed to them that Amy’s would always be a compassionate, people-first workplace,“ Berliner said. ”We want all Amy’s employees to feel like they are being taken care of, and we are deeply saddened to hear about the experiences these five employees have described.”

The company has grown steadily since 1988, and sales exploded at the start of the pandemic as shoppers stocked up on prepared foods. In 2020, the company had hired 753 employees by October, and projected $600 million in revenue that year.

Resch said Amy’s management does not want its employees to unionize, preferring “the direct relationship that we’ve had with our people for over 30 years.”

In the NBC story, workers claimed the company had hired a contractor to speak to them about unions and appears to be warning employees away from joining.

“I don’t want to comment on the hiring of consultants,” Resch said, adding that no one had been hired to speak negatively about unions.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Tony Delorio’s name.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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