When Ines De La Luz showed up for work at the Amy’s Kitchen factory in Santa Rosa, California, wearing an arm brace, prescribed after she couldn’t move her hand at the end of a fast-paced shift making frozen burritos in July 2020, she says a supervisor ordered her to remove the brace and return to the production line.
It was the start of a 1½-year ordeal that would send her back and forth to a doctor who she says hesitated to give her tougher work restrictions, and eventually to a new job in the factory disinfecting the cafeteria, alongside other injured workers.
De La Luz and another injured worker who cleans the cafeteria say it was called “the corral,” like on a farm. Though they aren’t sure where the name originated, they say it highlighted the feeling that they were no longer important to the company, a family business that is one of the country’s top makers of vegetarian frozen and canned food. De La Luz says that in the fall of 2021, when she learned she was a candidate for surgery to treat her arm injury, Amy’s Kitchen told her it was eliminating her position in the cafeteria and laid her off.
“There are a lot of days that I think that I’m good for nothing, that my life will never be the same and that I’ll never live without pain again,” she said.
With about $600 million in sales in 2020, Amy’s Kitchen is among a select group of brands with a reputation for being socially responsible. It relies on organic ingredients and is still run by its founders Andy and Rachel Berliner, who named it after their then-newborn daughter, Amy, in 1987. In advertising, Amy’s Kitchen says that they “always cook our food with love.”
“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,” the company said in one popular Facebook post at the start of the pandemic.
But one former and four current workers say that image is at odds with the painful reality on the factory floor. They say that the growth of Amy’s Kitchen has been made possible by increasing the speed of production lines and that workers are becoming injured in an effort to maintain the speed. They say that the conditions leave them especially vulnerable to repetitive stress injuries that gradually get worse over time.
Amy’s Kitchen employs 2,700 people across the country and cooks and packages its meals at production facilities in Idaho, Oregon and two factories in Northern California. The company also has four fast-food restaurants on the West Coast with plans to open more in 2022. The workers who spoke to NBC News all work out of the Santa Rosa factory, which is its oldest factory and functions as a command center for manufacturing operations.
The workers there say that the production lines have steadily increased in speed over the years without corresponding increases in pay or better resources to prevent injuries. After the pandemic started, Amy’s Kitchen executives said in several interviews that it increased production to meet “unprecedented” consumer demand for prepared foods.
“First, we were doing 21,000 plates in eight hours. Then they saw that they could do more,” said Cecilia Luna Ojeda, who has worked in the Santa Rosa factory for 17 years. She says that each production line now makes 25,716 plates of food during an 8 1/2-hour shift.
Resch declined to detail the specifics of how many plates workers prepare per shift. “We routinely lower or increase line speeds depending on a variety of reasons, including the number of positions being staffed, use of different equipment, and upstream/downstream constraints,” he said.
Amy’s Kitchen disputes that it mistreats injured workers. “If an occupational or personal injury does occur, we are committed to finding safe, reasonable accommodation for everyone and do all that we can to make employees feel supported from the onset of injury or illness to and through recovery,” Resch said. “We ensure they get the medical attention they need as soon as it is requested and when an employee does return to work, our Integrated Disabilities team works with them and their manager to make any necessary accommodations.”
But the workers say they are expected to prove any injuries they report to human resources with a doctor’s note, typically from physicians working at a nearby Concentra, a for-profit urgent care chain. The Concentra doctors seemed to look at them superficially or downplay their injuries, the workers say. De La Luz, who shared her medical records with NBC News, says when she complained to her first doctor at Concentra that his restrictions weren’t protecting her — because he wrote them as “suggested guidelines” that only applied to her “upper right extremity” rather than her entire arm, with an additional note that the “patient may work their entire shift” — he told her that he didn’t want to revise his prescription because “he was scared of Amy’s and Amy’s didn’t want us to stop working,” De La Luz said.
Select Medical, the parent company of Concentra, says it cannot comment on patient matters due to privacy laws. “With safety at the forefront of our care, our patients are individually assessed and treated by a clinician experienced in workplace injuries,” Select Medical spokesperson Shelly Eckenroth said.
Specialists that the workers see for follow-up treatment are more helpful, De La Luz and others say. But Amy’s Kitchen workers’ compensation doesn’t always approve the specialists’ recommendations.
Maria del Carmen Gonzalez has been unable to work with her right arm after she tore a tendon in her shoulder on the production line last April. After months of physical therapy, and working with just her left arm, her doctor recommended surgery, according to medical records reviewed by NBC News. But the firm overseeing workers’ compensation claims on behalf of Amy’s Kitchen rejected the doctor’s recommendation for surgery in October, writing that even though she wasn’t progressing, surgery was “not deemed medically necessary.”
A spokesperson for the insurance company that handles Amy’s Kitchen workers’ compensation claims declined to comment.
“I’m the one suffering with pain and who’s having troubles with my work. They say that they’re going to send me to someone else or that they’ll call me later but they never do,” Gonzalez said.
Her last job was in “the corral,” cleaning tables with her left hand. She wishes she could return to her old job but needs use of both of her arms to do so. “I feel like I’m in a cage because they’re always checking us and there are cameras,” she said. At the end of last year, she went on leave, and was waiting to see if the decision for surgery would be reversed and if she would receive workers’ compensation payments.
The push for unions and the pushback
Amy’s Kitchen ownership appears to be aware that at least some of its workforce is looking for a change. In recent months, a contractor has been holding meetings at the factory in which it divides workers into small groups to talk to them about unions. Workers say that the instructors who lead the meetings take a negative view of unions. In recordings of one the meetings obtained by NBC News, an instructor says that unions can charge membership dues without keeping promises they make. In a recording of another, a person that a source identified as the plant manager says that Amy’s leadership wants to stay free from unions so it can have a direct relationship with workers.
Resch and the plant manager confirmed that the company does not want its workforce to unionize. “We would much rather continue working and communicating with our employees directly than through a labor union or any third party,” the plant manager said in an emailed statement.
Ojeda says she first felt pain in her hand in 2006, but a manager told her it was probably her pregnancy hormones. By the time she finally underwent surgery in 2008, the tendon in her right wrist was hanging on by a thread, she said. “A lot of the workers don’t even call it human resources. They call inhumane resources because they really don’t care,” she said.
Ojeda noticed pain in her arm again in 2019, but says that she was required to show a doctor’s note before she was assigned a new job weighing plates of tamales only with her left arm. Then that side started to hurt, too. But when she complained, Ojeda says that she was again told that she needed a doctor’s note to prove she was injured. Ojeda says she was finally given paid time-off when she showed up to work with another doctor’s note and braces on both arms.
After working in the factory for 28 years, and surviving cancer in 2004, Janet Barcenas has chronic pain in her shoulder and her leg, and her doctor told her she will never recover completely. Her doctor wrote a note in 2020 requesting that she be allowed to use a chair while on the line. A supervisor initially rejected the request, she says, telling her “we’re not just going to do what the doctor says. We’re going to do what we think is best.” Barcenas says she complained again, telling a supervisor “that I was speaking not just for me, but for everybody.”
Human resources finally agreed to add chairs, she says, but they didn’t bring enough for everyone. On some days, there is no chair ready for her. “They act like we don’t need these things,” she said.
The workers interviewed make between $18 to $22 an hour. They received a $2 hourly raise in the fall of 2021, which the workers say was the result of a work stoppage protest that employees on the morning shift had organized. But after the pay increase, they learned that their health insurance costs would also increase.
Maricruz Meza, who had paid $320 a month to insure herself and her two children, now earns $22 an hour thanks to the $2 raise but says her premium will be $500 a month in 2022. Barcenas, who now earns $20 per hour, says her premium will be $814.
“This 2 dollars isn’t really going to do anything because the insurance just went up a lot,” Barcenas said.
Amy’s Kitchen responds that “due to a significant escalation in our medical coverage costs, we had to make some difficult choices this year,” though the company disputes that the increase will be significant.
“Amy’s has been able to pay for most of the increased costs directly, but we did need to pass a small part of the increased costs on to our employees,” Resch said.
In recent weeks, workers say that the contractors hired by Amy’s Kitchen to talk about unions have also been seen walking around the factory floor. The five women interviewed are hopeful that a union could improve conditions. Some said that they think Amy’s makes quality products and could become a good place to work if employees are given a say in production line speeds, higher pay and appropriate accommodations to prevent injuries.
“There are some people that are scared. There are some people that no matter what, they’re 100 percent with the company,” said Meza, who said she was injured six years ago, and then assigned a job during that time that required her to lift 50 pounds of broccoli, in violation of doctor’s orders that she not lift more than 5 pounds. More recently, she says, she complained that the conveyor belt was moving too fast. Even with her job as line lead, Meza says, she was warned by a supervisor that she is not allowed to complain about the speed of the line.
De La Luz, the woman who was laid off after her position was eliminated in the cafeteria, was still approved for surgery through her worker’s comp, but has had to have the procedure delayed indefinitely because her blood pressure shot up after losing her job. Now her husband supports the family financially while she struggles with basic tasks like brushing her daughter’s hair.
“We shouldn’t be living in pain, working in pain and constantly having pain,” she said. “We don’t want to be treated like donkeys anymore.”