SAN JOSE, California — Amy’s Kitchen, the country’s top maker of vegetarian frozen and canned food, in recent months has grappled with angry comments from consumers and calls for boycotts that are at odds with its family-run, ethical reputation, with workers alleging unsafe conditions, injuries and attempts to stop unionization.
On Monday, workers at its newest plant in San Jose, California, said they were abruptly told that the plant was closing because it was losing money due to inflation.
Six workers at the San Jose factory, which had only been open since 2021, told NBC News they have experienced demeaning behavior by supervisors and unsafe conditions. In interviews in the weeks leading up to the plant’s sudden closure, and in additional interviews on Monday, four of those workers said there was an unofficial policy that they could not use the bathroom outside lunch and other designated break times.
Employees at the company’s manufacturing headquarters not far away in Santa Rosa, California, have said they were subject to unsafe production quotas and repetitive motion injuries, according to previous reporting by NBC News. In January, one worker filed a formal complaint on behalf of all workers at the Santa Rosa factory with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which said its investigation is ongoing.
Amy’s Kitchen, responding to the previous negative publicity from both the Santa Rosa and San Jose factories, wrote in a post on its website earlier this year that allegations of unsafe worker conditions, denial of bathroom breaks, union-busting and lack of access to drinking water were completely false. Reached by email one week ago, CEO and co-founder Andy Berliner referred NBC News to company spokesman Paul Schiefer, who declined to comment on the allegations workers shared with NBC News. When asked about the reason for the plant closure, he attached a statement given to reporters citing inflation and supply chain issues but did not elaborate.
Raul Vargas said he showed up to work at the San Jose plant at 3 a.m. on Monday for his usual 12 hour shift doing kitchen prep work. It seemed like a normal day, he said. But a little before 7 a.m., he and others in the morning shift said they were ushered into a hallway by the breakroom for a meeting.
There, the factory’s plant manager and several representatives from Human Resources, along with Spanish and Vietnamese language translators, said the plant was closing. Workers were instructed to grab their personal belongings and leave, and that a taxi or Uber would be called for them if they did not have a ride back, according to Vargas and other workers laid off on Monday morning.
“We regret to inform you that your position will be eliminated on September 16, 2022, however you are being relieved of your duties effective July 19, 2022,” says a letter distributed to workers. Workers also received paperwork with instructions on how to apply for unemployment and for work at other Amy’s Kitchen locations. The documents, which were reviewed by NBC News, also listed a website for people feeling “stressed or depressed.”
Vargas had left a job at a homeless shelter to work for Amy’s Kitchen last October and said the company had recently purchased new equipment for his department. “To me, it doesn’t make sense. You’re going to invest in your business and then you shut it down?” he said.
The plant’s sudden closure comes after a union group representing the San Jose workers, Unite Here Local 19, filed multiple unfair labor practice charges against Amy’s Kitchen to the National Labor Relations Board on June 1, alleging that the workers in San Jose have been fired or disciplined for trying to organize a union.
In May, executives brought mariachi musicians to the factories as part of an annual Workers Appreciation Day. In speeches that executives and the family behind Amy’s Kitchen gave to factory workers in Santa Rosa shortly before the party, they acknowledged some missteps and problems retaining workers. But they also suggested that bringing more public attention to labor conditions at Amy’s Kitchen would be divisive. NBC News obtained an audio recording of the meeting.
“We’ve had a lot of stories that talk about Amy’s in a negative way,” Schiefer told the workers. “We’ve had boycotts asking people not to buy our products. We’ve had OSHA complaints. We’ve had scare tactics for our customers. And really, it’s not right. It’s not necessary. And it’s not needed.”
Unexpected job loss and complaints over working conditions
Amy’s Kitchen opened the plant in San Jose, its fourth, to meet pandemic-fueled demand for healthy and easy meals. At the grand opening in 2021, the San Jose mayor praised the company for bringing more jobs to the area. The company said it planned to hire 300 workers.
On Monday afternoon, a sign announcing that Amy’s Kitchen was hiring was still hanging outside the factory. A security guard onsite handed reporters paperwork with a pre-written statement. “Despite the company’s substantial investment in plant improvements, the facility has been unable to overcome current economic hurdles including abrupt price increases on goods and supply chain disruptions,” it reads in part.
The paperwork also says that employees “have remained top of mind during this realignment. In addition to continuing employees’ salaries and benefits during this transition, we have committed to provide all impacted employees with career placement assistance.”
Theresa Varela Sandoval said she started her first day of work at Amy’s Kitchen on May 3 of this year, in the factory’s sanitation department. She left her previous job in Trans Pacific because the location of the Amy’s Kitchen plant was only five minutes from her home. She said she showed up to work at 6 a.m. and got dressed in her work boots and clothing, without any indication that it was her last day.
In an interview after being laid off, she began to cry when considering her future plans. She said she is relying on her former coworkers to help her apply for a new job online.
Hilde Garda said she began working in the sanitation department on June 26 and had recently rented a room in San Jose, which is an hour away from her family’s home in Los Banos. She was relieved to find the job because she said she struggles with reading and writing.
For some workers, their time at the plant was fraught.
Maricela, who asked to not use her full name because she is concerned it could harm her search for a new job, said she took a job baking pizza crusts at the San Jose factory in February. The next four months left her feeling harassed and mistreated, she said.
The role was supposed to require a month of training, she said. Instead, Maricela said her training was finished after three days. Working 12-hour shifts by the pizza oven while it was set at 570 degrees made Maricela thirsty, but she said she limited her water intake out of fear of having to use the restroom. “There was nobody to cover me, and my break and lunch were the times that I had to go to the bathroom,” she said a supervisor told her.
Two other former workers, Ruby Luna and Hector Guardado, said they noticed that the pizza oven area where Maricela worked was isolated, hot and poorly ventilated. Maricela said her supervisor also repeatedly criticized her throughout the time she worked there for conversing with co-workers and for wearing perfume, even though she says she wasn’t wearing any.
Maricela sent NBC News photographs of her Amy’s Kitchen paychecks and of a scar on her neck, which she said is a burn from a hot plate that flew at her when the oven malfunctioned. Luna, who left a job at Goodwill to work at Amy’s Kitchen last December, saw Maricela shortly after the incident and said that supervisors were ridiculing her for crying. She said she believes that Maricela was mistreated because she had spoken up about her discomfort.
Luna shared medical paperwork showing that she pulled a muscle in her neck in February, which she said was caused by the repetitive movements of packaging boxes day after day. When she requested time off to recover, she said Human Resources gave her a “point,” under a system that Amy’s Kitchen uses to penalize workers. Once a worker receives 15 points, they are fired, according to disciplinary paperwork NBC News obtained.
Employees who request a day off without providing three working days notice are given two points. The paperwork was not confirmed by the company, which did not respond to questions about it. The documents do not clarify what consequences a worker may face if they are sick or injured within the three-day notice window. Workers said the policy discourages them from taking sick days.
“Because the policy says you’re going to get points, you have to show up sick or not,” Vargas said.
Additionally, “we don’t get to see how many points we have left until we’re fired,” said Luna.
Another worker named Xenia Rodriguez Gonzalez said that when workers stepped off the line to use the restroom, some supervisors begin counting down the time they are gone, without giving guidance on how much time is allotted.
“They punish us for anything that they don’t like by giving us points,” Gonzalez said.
Cecilia Luna Ojeda has worked at the Amy’s Kitchen plant in Santa Rosa for nearly 20 years and is trying to convince co-workers there to unionize. In January, Ojeda filed an official complaint with the help of the Teamsters on behalf of all workers at the Santa Rosa plant, describing production quotas that are too high, repetitive motion injuries, limited access to bathrooms and other alleged safety violations.
Janet Barcenas, who also works at the Santa Rosa plant and is trying to organize co-workers, said that a supervisor recently told her that the company was testing robots to replace part of the workforce. The company did not reply to a question about the allegation.
Amy’s Kitchen has previously denied allegations that it has punished workers for defending themselves or unionizing. “Amy’s Kitchen would never dismiss an employee for participating in union activities, and if at some point the majority of the company’s workforce chooses to unionize in a free and fair election, we will respect their decision,” the company told Bloomberg News in June.
‘Let’s try hard to make it a really happy place’
Amy’s Kitchen has a reputation as a socially responsible company and is still helmed by founders Andy and Rachel Berliner, who named it after their daughter Amy when they started it in 1987. The family stresses a message of “love” in consumer marketing, as well as in talks with workers.
In the meeting with factory workers in Santa Rosa shortly before the Workers Appreciation Day party, Andy Berliner stressed the company’s humble beginnings and said the past few years have been difficult. “You can imagine with four plants … how hard it was to pay all those bills,” he said, according to the recording.
He also told workers that when it comes to health care, “we spend almost $17,500 per employee every year on insurance.”
Before the lay-offs, workers from both San Jose and Santa Rosa described Berliner as a nice man, but they believed that the company could afford to do more to support its workforce. Executives have previously said that the company expected to make $600 million in revenue in 2020. Federal Aviation Administration records show that a private jet has been registered to Amy’s Kitchen since 2019. In addition to its four manufacturing plants and a local chain of fast-food restaurants, the company is reportedly working on a fifth property in New York state that would include a manufacturing plant as well as a 200,000-square-foot pavilion to be used for spiritual gatherings.
Berliner took over as CEO at the end of 2021, after previously being executive chairman, and he cited worker complaints as the reason. “The company started to go from being collaborative, bottom up, to top down. We weren’t listening enough to all of you,” Berliner said.
Injuries caused by fast, repetitive movements have been the chief complaint from workers interviewed by NBC News since late last year. Workers also described receiving inadequate medical care through a clinic where Amy’s sent them or through worker’s compensation. In their speeches at the May meeting, the company executives alluded to injuries. “We’re working on specific projects that will help with repetitive motion,” one unidentified person announced to the workers, without elaborating further.
“If someone is injured at work, we kind of lose control. It goes to some agency. We’re looking at different alternatives,” Berliner said later at the same meeting about a plan that could send injured workers to an on-site clinic. “But better yet, nobody gets injured,” he concluded.
As for the union push, Berliner said: “We’re together at work eight to 10 hours a day, some of you more … so let’s try hard to make it a really happy place, whatever your opinions are … Someone likes unions, someone doesn’t like the union, leave that all behind. Talk about things you all like. Like food, shopping for the ladies, music, things like that. I’m happy when you’re happy. So please be happy.”
Many workers laid off on Monday, however, are concerned about finding new jobs.
While Luna said she plans to return to school next month and is hopeful about finding work, others who have disabilities or don’t have transportation to get to work have far fewer options. “I’m just more worried right now about a lot of my older coworkers,” Luna said.
This story originally appeared on NBCNews.com.