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Cal/OSHA fined Amy’s Kitchen $25,000 for labor safety violations at Santa Rosa plant

A brief history of Amy’s Kitchen

Rachel and Andy Berliner founded Amy’s Kitchen in Petaluma in 1987 and named the company after their then-newborn daughter. It has grown steadily ever since, becoming a major Sonoma County employer while opening plants in Oregon and Idaho.

From its humble roots, Amy’s became the leading domestic producer of organic vegetarian packaged foods and is the sixth-largest U.S. maker of frozen dishes overall with more than 180 products, according to the North Bay Business Journal, a sister publication of The Press Democrat. The company shipped 21 million cases of food in 2020.

The company saw a boom during the pandemic, particularly at the start, when panicked shoppers rushed to stock up on prepared and frozen dishes. The boom was so great that the company hired 753 employees that year, with 188 of the new jobs in Sonoma County.

Andy Berliner stepped away briefly from his CEO role in August 2020. But he returned to the job in May 2021 after his replacement, Xavier Unkovic, left the company.

In January, Amy’s Kitchen sold three of its production facilities to a New York real estate investment trust, including the 107,000-square-foot Santa Rosa plant on Northpoint Parkway. Amy’s then leased the spaces back in a deal that was estimated to raise $144 million for the company.

Workplace safety inspectors fined organic food giant Amy’s Kitchen $25,070 for three serious violations and 10 other infractions after inspections of the company’s Santa Rosa food production plant in January and February.

Among the more serious violations, according to California Division of Occupational Safety and Health documents provided this week to The Press Democrat, regulators found the company did not ensure that machines to prepare tortillas had proper safety guards secured over hazardous machine components. The agency fined Amy’s $10,125 for the oversight.

On the same day, Jan. 31, investigators found that emergency showers and eyewash stations were either not reachable within 10 seconds or were not kept free of obstacles, which resulted in a $6,750 fine.

Cal/OSHA’s records show an investigator visited the plant on three days in late January and early February. Company officials said regulators spent six days total conducting inspections.

In statements, the Sonoma County-based company said it would appeal the citations because the issues were resolved after the inspections but before the state agency published its findings July 29. The company touted the outcome as generally reflective of safe conditions at the plant — and a repudiation of allegations by Teamster’s labor organizers that working conditions were dangerously unsafe.

“The Amy's Kitchen Santa Rosa food processing facility stood the test of a wall-to-wall inspection that proved what we already knew — our facilities are safe,” vice president of communications Paul Schiefer said in a statement.

However, a leader for the Teamsters, a labor union helping plant employees who seek to organize the plant workforce, said the state penalties indicated their concerns about the Northpoint Parkway facility were valid.

“Amy’s Kitchen says they are ‘a company that’s uncompromisingly committed to living by our values,’” Tony Delorio, an official with the Teamsters Local Union No. 665, said in a news release published Aug. 2. “That’s true, but their values are the same as Amazon, ExxonMobil or any other Fortune 500 company: profit at all costs. The egregious disregard for safety, which was verified by CAL/OSHA, is just one more example of their ‘values’ on display.”

Delorio helped Amy’s employee Cecilia Luna Ojeda file the complaint with the agency in late January. Ojeda filed the complaint on behalf of all her co-workers at the Northpoint plant, which employs around 630 people who cook, package, freeze and ship prepared meals prized by health-conscious consumers across the country, according to the original document.

The union used strong language to raise alarms about conditions at the plant, saying the written complaint that “without immediate action, workers will continue to get injured and/or possibly killed.”

In news stories and in the complaint, workers said the stress of shifts spent on production lines with fast-paced, repetitive motions involved in rolling burritos and preparing food plates have led to back strain and chronic injuries. Workers have been forced to increase their speeds in recent years on the production lines as the company grew and its output accelerated, some workers said.

Amy’s officials have denied such claims and say worker well-being is a priority for the company.

None of the citations focused on reported workplace injuries. However, inspectors included a warning in the report that there was the potential for such injuries on the burrito production lines if proper precautions weren’t taken by the company.

“The employers past years’ record of (repetitive motion injuries) showed that there are work areas … that would require ergonomic reevaluation, exposure control, and retraining of employees to minimize” repetitive motion injuries, the inspectors wrote.

Amy’s officials said the inspectors told them in a meeting at the conclusion of their work that the company had improved its workplace practices to avoid such injuries over the past three years.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health did not respond to a request to confirm those comments by noon Friday.

After a flurry of rallies and counterprotests at the Santa Rosa plant and at an Amy’s drive-through restaurant in Rohnert Park early in the year, the drive to unionize workers at the plants has slowed in recent months. The effort had been “on pause,” while workers and organizers awaited the results of the state investigation, Delorio said. They continue to wait for the results of a separate complaint filed with B Lab, a group that awards its B Corp Certification to companies that meet high standards of environmental and social responsibility.

“We’re still waiting on the B Corp complaint,” Delorio said, then, “we will push forward.”

The B Corp Certification is prized by companies like Amy’s that market their products as organic, environmentally sustainable and made with high labor standards.

“While B Lab does not have an official regulatory or oversight role, Amy's Kitchen has a long-standing relationship with that organization and they are aware of both the Cal/OSHA report and the company's efforts to address team member concerns,” the company said in a statement.

The company’s founder and CEO, Andy Berliner, has said he does not want his workers to unionize.

But, “Amy’s Kitchen continues to respect our employees' choice to vote on unionization in a free and fair election,” the company said in a statement this week.

In February, The Press Democrat reported that Amy’s had hired controversial consulting firms that pro-union employees said were acting as “union busters” to dissuade the work force from organizing through a pressure campaign and misinformation. Among the contractors was Quest Consulting, a firm notorious with labor organizers nationwide for its work against union drives.

Amy’s Kitchen says it hired the consultants to inform managers about labor law. Quest Consulting is no longer working for Amy’s Kitchen, having completed its work in April, according to a company spokesperson. Amy’s has hired Los Angeles-based firm Rally to handle media relations and issue advocacy.

Adding fresh tensions to the dispute between the company and its pro-union workers was a recently announced decision by Amy’s to close a new production plant in San Jose sometime next month. Amy’s officials say the plant, which only opened in March 2021, is operating at a monthly loss of $1 million. They cited a host of global economic woes, including supply chain disruption, inflation and consumers turning away from the organic frozen pizzas that have a higher price tag.

The closure will cost 331 people their jobs.

Labor organizers, who rallied outside the South Bay plant this week, questioned the company’s official reasoning and pointed instead to a separate organization effort in San Jose led by the food and hospitality workers union Unite Here as a reason for the layoffs.

“The closure of this facility is part of the company’s overall campaign orchestrated against its workers,” Unite Here Northern California Organizing Director Tho Do said in a news release.

Staff writer Alana Minkler contributed reporting.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

A brief history of Amy’s Kitchen

Rachel and Andy Berliner founded Amy’s Kitchen in Petaluma in 1987 and named the company after their then-newborn daughter. It has grown steadily ever since, becoming a major Sonoma County employer while opening plants in Oregon and Idaho.

From its humble roots, Amy’s became the leading domestic producer of organic vegetarian packaged foods and is the sixth-largest U.S. maker of frozen dishes overall with more than 180 products, according to the North Bay Business Journal, a sister publication of The Press Democrat. The company shipped 21 million cases of food in 2020.

The company saw a boom during the pandemic, particularly at the start, when panicked shoppers rushed to stock up on prepared and frozen dishes. The boom was so great that the company hired 753 employees that year, with 188 of the new jobs in Sonoma County.

Andy Berliner stepped away briefly from his CEO role in August 2020. But he returned to the job in May 2021 after his replacement, Xavier Unkovic, left the company.

In January, Amy’s Kitchen sold three of its production facilities to a New York real estate investment trust, including the 107,000-square-foot Santa Rosa plant on Northpoint Parkway. Amy’s then leased the spaces back in a deal that was estimated to raise $144 million for the company.

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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