Workers who pack and ship boxes of food for HelloFresh in California voted against unionizing at the end of last year despite facing high rates of injury, low wages, and a major COVID-19 outbreak, a loss for the labor movement that reflects the ongoing challenges facing organizers two years into the pandemic.
In summer 2020, a HelloFresh food-packing facility in Richmond, just north of Oakland, was the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in one of the state’s most populous counties, a wave that infected 171 workers at one warehouse. After an employee who worked at the facility died of COVID, state health and safety officials opened an investigation and in April 2021 charged the company with a “serious” violation.
A labor union for the food and hospitality workers, UNITE HERE, started looking into working conditions at HelloFresh and published government data that showed rates of injury at the Richmond facility in 2020 were more than three times the average for the warehousing industry and almost twice as high as the average for workers in prepared food manufacturing.
And workers faced those risks all while getting paid at an $18-an-hour rate that amounted to less than a living wage in the Bay Area, according to calculations by researchers at MIT.
To organizers at UNITE HERE, the combination of those conditions made HelloFresh a prime target for unionizing — especially at a time when the risks of working through the pandemic seemed to have sparked a turning point in the American labor movement as workers demanded higher pay, pushed for safer working conditions, and walked out the door in record numbers. Strikes and walkouts doubled between fall 2020 and fall 2021, reported Bloomberg, which concluded that unions are “having a moment.” The Washington Post called this so-called strike wave “historic.” NBC deemed 2021 “the year of the worker.”
But in November and December, HelloFresh workers in both Richmond, California, and Aurora, Colorado, voted decisively against the union — of 763 eligible workers in Richmond, 198 voted in favor of joining UNITE HERE, while 289 voted against, a similar spread to the results in Aurora.
Even as public support for unions swelled and the labor movement gained momentum, actually persuading workers to form new unions remained a challenge.
For some workers earning around $18 an hour in Richmond, the prospect of union dues cutting into their already tight budgets was enough to turn them against the initiative.
“If we applied for the union, they’re going to take our extra money,” HelloFresh employee Candy Hatcher said, referring to the dues employees would pay if the union won. “I have bills. I have rent and everything,”
“Campaigns of intimidation can be very successful because these workers know that they are living a precarious life.”
The number of successful union campaigns dropped following the start of the pandemic, both because it limited face-to-face organizing and because the agency paused elections during the early months of the outbreak. In 2020, 577 unions were certified and 661 in 2021, down from 901 in 2019 and 1,076 in 2015, according to data collected by Miami University assistant professor of political science Kevin Reuning. The trend predates the pandemic: In the last six years, the total number of newly unionized workers has plummeted — from 53,765 in 2015 to 45,189 in 2019 to 31,445 in 2021 — while the percentage of elections that unions win has hovered consistently around 50%.
The recent setbacks for labor organizers reflect the difficulty of convincing workers who are paid low wages and have minimal employment protections that the benefits of collective bargaining are worth the financial costs and the risks of losing employment at companies aggressively pushing against unionizing.
“It’s hard for all workers to organize, but it’s especially hard for the more vulnerable workers to organize,” said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers. “Campaigns of intimidation can be very successful because these workers know that they are living a precarious life. It really helps employers take advantage of employees when the employees feel fortunate to have a job instead of feeling they have a right to demand more.”
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At HelloFresh, which is what’s called a “second-chance employer,” some employees have criminal convictions on their records, which bars them from a range of other jobs, including driving for Lyft or Uber. Others are immigrants with limited English-speaking skills. All face one of the most severe housing shortages in the country; a quarter of Bay Area residents don’t make enough money to make ends meet.
Like many companies, HelloFresh maintained a website that discouraged workers from voting for the union. The website, My HelloFresh Voice, told workers they could be “permanently replaced” if they went on strike, and it included a calculator that showed how much they could earn if they invested their dues rather than paying the union $59.60 per month.
The vote against the union at the HelloFresh facilities in some ways mirrors the ongoing high-profile union election at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama; following a decisive loss, both unions charged the employer with illegally interfering in the election process. While workers at Amazon succeeded in that effort and will begin voting by mail in a rerun of the election on Feb. 4, workers at HelloFresh await an investigation by federal labor regulators into their objection to the election results in Colorado and charges of unfair labor practice in California.
Workers who supported the union had “wanted HelloFresh to finally listen to their concerns about disrespect, dangerous working conditions, and pay,” a spokesperson for the union said in a statement immediately following the election, “but instead HelloFresh spent thousands of dollars a day on an aggressive anti-union campaign.”
In a statement, the company said that the election had made it “resoundingly clear” that employees “trust in HelloFresh to work in their best interest.” The company denied that it had interfered illegally with the union election process and said the goal of the union website was to “create an open dialogue with our employees, enabling them to make informed decisions” about unionizing. HelloFresh said it took steps to improve safety measures in 2021 and reduced its injury rate to below the industry average. “Employees are at the heart of everything we do, and we prioritize their health, safety and wellbeing above all else,” the statement said.
While there are laws against intimidating and threatening employees who want to unionize, enforcement mechanisms are weak and consequences for employers are limited, said Lola Loustaunau, a University of Oregon sociologist who in 2020 published research on why workers vote against unions.
“It benefits them to violate labor law,” she said of employers generally. “They could fire you, and you can file a fair labor practice claim later, but what does that do for a person who needs their paycheck this week?”
As Bay Area COVID-19 cases climbed to new highs in summer 2020, Contra Costa County health officials noticed that one employer “kept coming up,” according to workplace health and safety documents: HelloFresh.
When health inspector Heather Cedermaz went out to investigate the Richmond facility on July 20, 2020, the company said it had 26 recorded coronavirus cases in its workplace, but county records showed at least 54 cases among HelloFresh employees in that facility. While she found HelloFresh cooperative, she wasn’t satisfied with its COVID protocols, she later told California workplace safety officials. People were grouped by doorways and eating together in a crowded break room, the plexiglass barriers meant to reduce exposure between people working side by side were hung too high to be effective, and employees weren’t properly wearing their masks. Documents show that in official mitigation strategies sent to HelloFresh, the public health department recommended the company take “immediate actions,” including reducing the on-site workforce by 40% by July 22, 2020, and testing all employees by July 29.
By then, Wilfredo Alvarez, a 64-year-old HelloFresh employee who’d been working on the production line in Richmond for three years, had been hospitalized with COVID-19 for over a week. His children kept in touch with their dad’s employer, according to text messages included in documents provided to BuzzFeed News by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. The family updated company human resources representatives on which hospital he was in and kept them abreast of his condition. William, one of Alvarez’s sons, told state health and safety officials that he had also informed the company of his dad’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis, and text messages show he told them when he also contracted the virus himself and had to quarantine.
“Dad is stable but still in critical conditions,” William texted a HelloFresh HR representative on July 21. “But slowly he’s getting better.”
After Alvarez had come to San Francisco from Nicaragua, he first worked as a salesperson, pitching farm equipment to agricultural workers throughout the region, before eventually ending up at HelloFresh, one of his sons, Wilfredo Jr., told BuzzFeed News. Even into his 60s, Alvarez was active, jumping rope with his grandkids at a birthday party in early July. Though he was nearing retirement age, he had no plans to stop working. The youngest of his 12 children was 12 years old, and he wanted to keep earning to support his kids’ education.
Wilfredo Jr. said that his dad was careful about COVID-19 and rarely went anywhere else besides work. “He always took care of his health,” he said. “When this whole COVID thing started, even to come see us and spend time with us, he would come wearing his gloves and mask the whole time.”
But his precautions weren’t enough to ward off the virus. On July 9, Alvarez, who had never been tested for COVID-19 at work, called out sick, telling his employer that his symptoms must be a result of his diabetes acting up. Less than a week later, he tested positive for COVID and was admitted to the hospital.
In an email exchange reviewed by BuzzFeed News, HelloFresh’s US head of corporate safety and security, Mitchell Jacobs, told state officials that, according to information provided to him by human resources, after Alvarez was hospitalized, the company didn’t hear about his condition again until the county health department called to inform the company of Alvarez’s death. But text message records show that, on July 29, one of Alvarez’s sons texted a HelloFresh representative about his dad’s condition, saying, “I’m still hoping for a miracle and hoping for the best but I'm looking for funeral homes already.” Later that night, Alvarez died, alone in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Vacaville, California.
“My dad didn’t make it,” Alvarez’s son told a HelloFresh employee via text message.
“Oh my goodness. No I’m so so sorry. I’m so sorry,” the HelloFresh employee responded.
Cedermaz heard about Alvarez’s death from the hospital and instructed the company to report the fatality to the state, which it did, 12 days after his death. The accident report stated that HelloFresh was “unsure of the cause of death” and had “no knowledge as to if [Alvarez] was positive for COVID-19 or not.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the company said that “HelloFresh has at all times fully met its reporting obligations in a timely manner, and has at all times followed our voluntary and industry-leading operating procedure when we have been made aware of self-reported incidents of COVID-19 among our team, including multi-level contact tracing and quarantine.”
The day after the report of Alvarez’s death was filed, state health inspectors came to the Richmond facility to inspect the company’s COVID-19 protocols. There, they encountered many of the same issues the county’s investigator had found three weeks before: Employees were grouped too close together, some handwashing stations had no water, and while there were "barriers between production line workers," the partitions were located "above their heads!"
Health and safety officials continued working with HelloFresh, which in September informed them that its director of safety and security, Craig Gage, had “left the position” and was being replaced by newly hired Mitchell Jacobs. On Sept. 22, Jacobs took a state official on another facility tour in which they encountered one worker “without a face covering,” a second “without a face covering placed over his mouth and nose,” a third “not wearing their face covering,” and a fourth “without a face covering in place,” according to state health and safety documents. Gage didn’t respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News; HelloFresh did not respond to questions regarding his departure from the company.
“All you had to do to get in is say you haven’t been tested and you could get in.”
Lontrell Bolton, who was working for HelloFresh that summer, said he felt as though the company “didn’t really care” about whether employees were getting sick or bringing the virus to work. He remembered thinking it was strange that employees were allowed to sit together at lunch inside with their masks off.
“The outbreak was there a long time, but nobody really said anything,” Bolton told BuzzFeed News. The priority, he said, was keeping the facility open, not keeping the virus out.
“All you had to do to get in is say you haven't been tested and you could get in," he said.
By the time the state health and safety agency completed its investigation, it agreed that HelloFresh hadn’t done enough to protect its staff from the worst of the pandemic. The agency was not able to conclusively determine whether Alvarez contracted the virus at work, on April 5, 2021. But it concluded that the company had failed to keep workers appropriately distanced, provide barriers, and enforce mask rules; officials charged the company with one moderate and one serious health and safety violation and fined it $8,995.
In a statement, HelloFresh said it worked quickly to roll out COVID-19 safety procedures, including “increased sick pay, daily hospital-grade deep cleanings, mask mandates, strict social distancing, upgraded air filtration systems, and paid time off for quarantines.”
The company has not paid the fine but said it is in “close conversations with CalOSHA pertaining to the ongoing citation and [looks] forward to reaching a final resolution once the investigation is complete.” The company said it was “deeply saddened to learn of Mr. Alvarez's passing” but “unable to link this incident to work-related exposure.”
The Alvarez family believes their dad contracted the virus at work — but because HelloFresh wasn’t testing employees daily, there’s no way to know. “They should have done their contact tracing,” Wilfredo Jr. said. “If they have to shut down until they figured things out, they should have done that.”
Almost a year and a half after Alvarez died, his family is still waiting to have a funeral. He wanted to be buried in Nicaragua, but the expense of flying the whole family down, plus the cost of complying with local COVID testing protocols, is still too high. Meanwhile, his older children have had to support their youngest siblings in addition to their own kids, who still get emotional when they think about their grandfather, Wilfredo Jr. said.
“The last conversation I had with him, he told my kids, ‘I’ll see you guys soon, I’m fine!’ Which we knew he wasn’t, but he wasn’t going to tell my kids that,” he said. “He wasn’t done. He wanted to live.”
Rusty Barnes, a HelloFresh employee for four years, lived across the street from Wilfredo Alvarez, not far from the facility where they both worked. From the moment Barnes, 55, first heard that a union might come to HelloFresh through a coworker on his team in the shipping department in fall 2021, he was on board. “That company is a joke,” he said. “They needed to go union.”
Even without a global pandemic, working in a warehouse where large pallets of food are being stored, moved, broken down, and repacked into smaller boxes to be shipped to homes across the country can be a physically taxing job. Workers reported injuries in every month of 2020 — including wrist strains from lifting, bruises from tripping over onions, contusions from having a “foot ran over by the pallet jack,” and the “crushing of multiple lower extremities” by “parts and materials on top of a rack,” according to state health and safety documents. In September, an employee strained her neck after “another employee fell on top of [her] and knocked her to the ground.” According to UNITE HERE, workers at HelloFresh’s Richmond facility in 2020 were injured 4.8 times as frequently as the average worker in private industry. The company said it reduced its injury rate in 2021.
Barnes said it’s easy to trip over loose pieces of wood or pallet straps on the floor in the shipping area where he works. He doesn’t mind the physical nature of the work, he said, but he believes his experience and expertise should earn him a higher wage than what production line workers make. He lives with his 81-year-old mother and drives her car to work because he can’t afford to fix his truck; his main reason for supporting the union was financial.
“I stack boxes on pallets, and I don’t think anyone else has ever did it for as long as I’ve been doing it, and I still make just as much as the guy that’s been there for a year,” he said. “I don’t feel it's right.”
Barnes said the company’s response to the union was aggressive. “They were passing out beanies saying ‘Vote no.’ They were giving out masks that said ‘Vote no.’ They had signs all over the wall everywhere that said ‘Vote no.’ And they kept taking people into meetings almost every day.” According to unfair labor practice charges later filed by the union, the company wasn't just "distributing anti-union masks and hats to employees" but "requiring employees to wear them." The charges didn’t specify how the company enforced that requirement. Barnes said he didn’t wear the hat, and that he taped a pro-union message onto this safety vest. UNITE HERE didn’t respond to questions about the charges it filed.
Supporters tried to keep the union organizing secret from management, Barnes said. But by the time they publicly announced the campaign and filed for an election on Sept. 23, the company had already hired an anti-union firm that cost $3,500 per day per consultant to work in California and Colorado, according to HuffPost. After that, the company tried multiple strategies to curtail enthusiasm for the union. HelloFresh tech workers who asked questions about the working conditions their colleagues in the processing facilities were experiencing were ignored or shut down by management, Vice reported.
In October, the union filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board accusing HelloFresh of violating labor law. Workers said the company had illegally intimidated employees in Richmond who vocally supported the union by denying them access to the restroom, preventing them from receiving lunch, demoting them, and sending them home from work without pay. The union also accused the company of prohibiting employees from distributing union pamphlets, a legally protected activity, and “using physical force against employees,” the charge stated.
HelloFresh said it plans to refute the charges of unfair labor practices but declined to comment further on an “ongoing investigation.”
Ballots started going out to HelloFresh workers in Richmond on Nov. 18. On Nov. 23, UNITE HERE learned it had lost the election at HelloFresh in Aurora. Meanwhile, two workers in California told a local news outlet funded by Chevron that the labor union only wanted to collect dues and was exaggerating health and safety issues to scare them. On Dec. 15, the votes came in — the union had lost.
UNITE HERE contested the results of the election in Colorado, but not the one in Richmond, although the union did file additional unfair labor practice charges in early January, accusing HelloFresh management of "making a rule against displaying union insignia," promising raises after the election ended, and enforcing certain rules only against employees who supported the union, among other charges.
“We are determined to hold HelloFresh accountable for its brazen and disgusting anti-union tactics,” spokesperson Ted Waechter said in a statement immediately following the election.
In Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon workers won a do-over election because a regional director for the NLRB found that the corporation had broken the law; the second round of voting will begin on Feb. 4 and votes will be counted on March 28, a year and four months after the union first filed for election. Givan, the Rutgers professor, warned that the rerun process is “long, it’s expensive, and it’s really, really difficult.” Workers at a Smithfield Foods plant eventually won a rerun election in 2008, Givan said, but it took three tries and 16 total years.
At the time the union lost the Amazon election in Alabama at the beginning of 2021, many union leaders and labor scholars spoke about the need for Congress to pass the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would have prohibited employers from mandating attendance at anti-union meetings and introduced monetary penalties for companies that broke the law. But one year later, those policies still haven’t become law, though Congress continues to negotiate the $2 trillion Build Back Better bill, which contains some elements of the PRO Act.
Today, labor leaders have shifted their hopes to President Joe Biden’s appointee for NLRB general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, who has said she plans to use her power to more forcefully police employers. A recent settlement gave the NLRB more power to punish Amazon, as the New York Times first reported.
For the moment, though, worker protections remain unchanged, leaving people who “are already pretty low-wage workers in pretty hazardous conditions, barely making ends meet, being confronted with the possibility of losing what little they have,” the University of Oregon’s Loustaunau said.
Rusty Barnes, the shipping worker, said HelloFresh ran “a nasty anti-union campaign” that, for now, has succeeded. “They scared a lot of people to vote no,” he said.
During the election, he and other employees received a text message from HelloFresh about a wage raise, which he believed meant a retroactive $1-an-hour pay increase when the election was over. “It would make a lot of difference,” said Barnes, who makes $18.86 an hour and planned to put the money toward repairing his truck. But so far, the raise hasn’t appeared, and when he brought it up with HR, he said, a representative told him he already makes the maximum rate for his position.
HelloFresh said it did raise its national minimum wage after the union election ended, but that how the raise impacted employees depended on where in the country they worked; employees with questions should "reach out to their local human resources team," a spokesperson said.
Barnes said he wants to help the union keep fighting at HelloFresh, but he’s also thinking about finding another job.
“I got bills just like everybody else,” he said. “All they care about is getting their boxes out.” ●
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