Last year, HelloFresh, the popular food-kit delivery company that advertises technologically innovative and sustainable approaches to cooking, sold 278 million meals to Americans and doubled its U.S. revenue to $2.4 billion. But on HelloFresh's assembly lines, workers were unable to afford rent, suffered serious injuries, and were subjected to timers when they used the bathroom, according to workers interviewed by Motherboard.
Now 1,300 HelloFresh workers—intent on improving dire circumstances—are unionizing two HelloFresh factory kitchens in Colorado and California.
On Tuesday, UNITE HERE, the national hospitality and service industry union, filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board asking to authorize a vote by workers at the kitchen factory in Aurora, Colorado. HelloFresh workers at the Richmond, California, facility in the Bay Area are signing up for the union in droves, according to UNITE HERE.
"We are struggling financially. There are a lot of people who don’t know how to meet income requirements to rent apartments."
If HelloFresh workers vote to unionize, they would be the first in the booming meal-kit industry, which includes Blue Apron, Sun Basket, and Martha & Marley Spoon, to do so. Founded in 2011 in Germany, HelloFresh is now the largest meal-kit company in the United States. The service—which includes user-friendly instruction cards for each meal—is marketed to white-collar professionals, in particular women, short on time for grocery shopping and planning recipes.
"We want to break the cycle that so many of us at HelloFresh are under," Mary Williams, a 26-year-old pack line worker at the Aurora site who earns $15 an hour, told Motherboard. "It's a cycle of low-paying work and having to work back-to-back jobs. We believe that having a union will really change things."
Williams packs between 600 and 1,000 HelloFresh boxes a day, and says that in recent months, her assembly line, which is supposed to have seven workers, has been expected to meet the same quotas with only four workers, due to staffing difficulties. She feels discouraged from taking water breaks because the burden would fall on her co-workers to pick up the slack. When she uses the bathroom, which involves removing hairnets, jackets, and gloves, her supervisor sets a 10-minute timer.
"Now that the economy is open and people are getting new jobs, we’re low-staffed," said Mary. "We have four people on the line doing double the work."
Williams and her sister, Sarah—who both work on the assembly line stuffing cardboard insulation, ice packs, meat, and prepared food kits into boxes—lost their jobs in the hospitality industry during the pandemic and came to work at HelloFresh in November. But unable to afford rent on their HelloFresh income, they had to move out of a rented studio apartment and live with their parents.
"We are struggling financially," said Mary. "There are a lot of people who are in similar situations who had to move in with parents during Covid and people who don’t know how to meet income requirements to rent apartments."
Multiple workers at both the Richmond and Aurora facilities have shared with UNITE HERE organizers that they are homeless and cannot afford rent with HelloFresh wages.
"You’re drowning on these wages when you have a family. I have four kids and I support three of them," said Michael Simon, a heavy lifter on a carrot-processing machine at the Richmond facility. "I sacrifice buying new clothes and I can't fill up my gas tank all the way. It’s frustrating when you can’t take your kid to do simple stuff like go to Chuck E Cheese and Party City."
Lily Vasquez, who works on the “kitting line,” stuffing fresh produce and other ingredients into plastic bags, at the HelloFresh factory in Richmond, said she wants to unionize to increase her pay and address concerns about health and safety at the factory. She suffers chronic pain in her neck, back, and shoulders from repeating the same motions thousands of times.
"Lots of us are excited. We are sure a union is what we want and what we need to have the change we need to make," Vasquez said in Spanish. “I am worried for a lot of the people working at HelloFresh. A lot of us have injured hands and pain in our feet, but we work through the pain because we won’t get paid if we go home. We need this change immediately and I know we are going to achieve it."
HelloFresh workers in Aurora and Richmond say anti-union consultants have visited and held mandatory anti-union meetings in recent days. Workers say Kulture Consulting, an anti-union firm known for spreading right-wing conspiracy theories and fighting union drives at Coca-Cola and AT&T, was present in the Colorado facility earlier this summer.
"On Monday, we went to one of these meetings, and the consultant that HelloFresh hired goes on to say unions are bad and manipulate and lie to you," said Sarah Williams.
In its 2021 code of ethics, HelloFresh touts its commitment to workers’ rights, sustainability, and universal access to healthy food. "We are aware of our responsibility and the importance of promoting human rights and the rights of workers throughout our operations," the company says. "We support the principles established under the International Bill of Human Rights as well as the International Labor Organization."
On June 16, an unmoored several-hundred-pound pallet full of plastic bins fell approximately 25 feet onto four workers in Aurora, trapping them and sending two seriously injured workers in ambulances to the hospital for treatment, according to a series of witness statements collected by UNITE HERE.
Workers say this was the fourth time a pallet had fallen in four months because they weren't secured with brackets or rope.
"There was a meeting that was called after the accident to tell us to stop 'gossiping' about our concerns," said Mary Williams.
A spokesperson from HelloFresh said it is inaccurate to report that a several-hundred-pound pallet caused the incident. "We took the incident very seriously, but the item that was involved was smaller," the spokesperson said. "Immediately following the incident, we partnered with OSHA and subsequently added enhanced safety measures."
Vasquez, a 48-year-old single mom, earns $18.50 an hour as a line lead after five years at HelloFresh, but says it’s not enough to support her son and mother in the Bay Area.
"My brother is a big support; he helps me when I need something,'' Vasquez said. "But why should I be asking for help from my brother?"
Last year, at least 171 workers tested positive for COVID-19 at the HelloFresh facility in Richmond, making it the largest COVID-19 outbreak to date in Contra Costa County, according to public records obtained by UNITE HERE. When Vasquez and her son tested positive for COVID, she says she called management repeatedly to inform them but never got a response.
"Lots of us are excited. We are sure a union is what we want and what we need to have the change we need to make.”
The majority of workers at the HelloFresh facilities in Colorado and California are people of color, according to UNITE HERE—many of them Latinx, African-American, and Pacific Islander. Workers in Aurora say supervisors and managers are predominantly white men.
"HelloFresh workers came to us and we responded," D Taylor, the president of UNITE HERE, told Motherboard. "A German company has come to the United States and set up factories and made enormous profits—became the pandemic profiteer—and workers came to us because of health and safety issues.
"We want to organize workers in our industry who are being exploited and don’t have a say on the job. This is not the first or the last time," Taylor said. "We know that many companies that promote progressive ideas have a problem and will fight workers tooth and nail in order to keep a union out."