Hundreds of HelloFresh workers at two distribution plants in New Jersey are unionizing with the Brotherhood of Amalgamated Trades, Motherboard has learned.
On Wednesday, the union filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for a union election at the HelloFresh distribution center in Newark. HelloFresh is the largest meal-kit provider in the United States. Its factory workers are also unionizing at a nearby facility in Totowa, New Jersey.
The HelloFresh union drive in New Jersey comes weeks after workers at HelloFresh facilities in California and Colorado announced they were unionizing with the union UNITE HERE. If HelloFresh workers vote to unionize, they would be the first in the meal-kit industry, which includes Blue Apron and Sun Basket, to do so.
Across the country, workers at HelloFresh say conditions inside its factories are dire and dangerous and that they regularly are injured and threatened with termination if they request to go home because they are too sick or injured to work.
On assembly lines, workers at the facility package HelloFresh meal-kit boxes, which includes ice, insulation, meat, and fresh produce and other ingredients stuffed into small plastic bags.
"The main issue is safety. I've been injured twice in the building," a HelloFresh worker at the Newark facility told Motherboard. "I fractured my arm when I hit my hand against a crate that shouldn’t have been there, and an employee threw a crate across the assembly line and hit me in the forehead. The supervisor gave me a frozen piece of chicken to put on my forehead. We need a union really, really badly."
The worker asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation from the company.
Josh Gottlieb, president of Brotherhood of Amalgamated Trades, told Motherboard that the union took on this campaign because of the conditions they heard workers were experiencing inside HelloFresh's facilities.
"We look for opportunities not only where employees are in the greatest need of union representation, but also where we feel we can accomplish the most for our members," Gottlieb said. "In this case we determined the conditions at these facilities were so dire that we had to act and act quickly to help these folks improve their working conditions."
Organizers say the majority of workers at the HelloFresh facilities in New Jersey are people of color.
“Our employees are at the heart of everything we do, and we are committed to their health, safety and wellbeing above all else,” a spokesperson for HelloFresh told Motherboard. “There has been a lot of misinformation and mischaracterizations at this time, and we want to shed light on the reality of the HelloFresh employee experience. We believe in taking care of our employees and are committed to being an employer of choice in every community we operate. The decision of whether or not to be represented by a union is an important one and we respect each employee’s right to choose or refuse union membership. It’s a decision that impacts almost everything in an employee’s work life – from take-home pay, to the quality of value proposition, to the culture that exists inside the workplace.”
The unionizing HelloFresh facilities in New Jersey rely on a combination of direct hire and temp agency workers, from Addeco, RanStad, ProLogistix, and Wonolo. Workers intend to unionize a wall-to-wall shop that includes both temp workers and employees, according to the Brotherhood of Amalgamated Trades. Both temp workers and full-time employees would unionize as a single unit.
During the pandemic, HelloFresh, which advertises efficient and technically innovative approaches to cooking from scratch for working professionals, sold 278 million meal kits in the United States, and more than doubled its U.S. revenue to $2 billion year-over-year.
Many companies that serve New York City open warehouses and distribution centers in New Jersey, because it's cheaper both for warehouse space leases as well as labor costs. In New Jersey, the minimum wage is $12.00 an hour, three dollars less than it is in New York City.
Until recently, workers at the HelloFresh facility in Newark started at $14.00 an hour for the day shift, according to recent job postings. But on September 20, the day after the union leafletted outside the HelloFresh facilities in New Jersey, workers received text messages from management announcing significant pay raises.
"[Hello Fresh] Fam - Exciting news! As you know, HelloFresh evaluates our hourly rates throughout the year to ensure we remain competitive and pay best in class to show appreciation for your hard work," the text reads. "In recognition of this, all hourly rates in our [New Jersey warehouses] will be increased to a minimum hourly rate of $16 an hour." The text message goes on to say that workers are also eligible for a $1 raise after working for 30 days and an additional $0.25 cents per hour pay increase every three months for two years.
Union organizers say offering raises is a common tactic used by employers to appease workers ahead of a union election.
"This is hush money," the HelloFresh worker in Newark who asked to remain anonymous said. "The corporation throws us a couple pennies because the union has been outside for a couple weeks."
The union says HelloFresh supervisors at the facility have been disguising themselves as workers to gain information about the union.
In September, unionizing HelloFresh workers in California and Colorado facilities told Motherboard they are unable to afford rent, suffer serious injuries at work, and are timed when they use the bathroom. The HelloFresh facility in Richmond, California suffered the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the county where it operates, according to public records.
In recent weeks, HelloFresh workers at facilities in Colorado have been forced to attend so-called "captive audience" meetings, where anti-union consultants hired by HelloFresh have tried to persuade workers to vote against the union. The consultant who has met with workers in Colorado works for an anti-union firm called Kulture Consulting, which is known for spreading right-wing conspiracy theories and fighting union drives at Coca-Cola and AT&T.
Do you have a tip to share with us about working conditions at HelloFresh? Please get in touch with the reporter Lauren via email: Lauren.email@example.com or on Signal 201-897-2109.
In recent months, employers across the country have struggled to hire and retain workers, and workers appear to be using newfound leverage to go on strike and organize unions.
More than 10,000 workers are on strike at the agricultural giant John Deere, and 1,400 Kellogg's workers have shut down production at all of the company's ready-to-eat cereal factories. Workers are waging union campaigns at Amazon, Starbucks, and Dollar General—companies that have kept out unions for decades.
This article has been updated with a comment from HelloFresh.