Unite Here, the labor union representing over 300,000 workers in the U.S. and Canada, says HelloFresh’s Richmond factory workers are poised to form the meal-kit industry’s first-ever union. But some workers are skeptical of the large union’s promises and say they’re being pressured to vote in favor of unionizing.
Unite Here has led a well-publicized campaign to unionize HelloFresh factories in both Richmond and Aurora, Colo., saying workers are demanding better pay and working conditions. The union’s efforts fell short in Colorado, where Aurora factory workers voted 166-to-91 last month against unionizing. Now, the focus is on the Richmond factory, where voting on whether to form a union began on Nov. 18, with the tallying of votes set for Dec. 15.
The union and its supporters say HelloFresh profited from the COVID-19 pandemic while workers suffered from unsafe conditions. They point, in part, to the Richmond warehouse reportedly being the site of the largest single outbreak of COVID-19 in Contra Costa County, with 171 cases and one death, as well as the $8,435 in Cal/OSHA fines alleging violations of pandemic workplace safety protocols.
In a September statement, the union quoted Lily Vasquez, a kitting line employee in Richmond, as saying that she suffers pain in her shoulders, neck and back from the repetitive motions of her work. In a November statement, Tony Guzman, identified as a team lead in the knitting department, described witnessing a workplace injury and declared his support for unionizing, saying, “My coworkers and I are ready to vote yes for our union because we shouldn’t be risking our bodies just to work at HelloFresh.”
Some Richmond workers don’t agree with these depictions and claim the union’s main goal is to take $60 per month out of their pay for union dues.
In interviews with the Standard, Natalia Moyota, a production line leader at the Richmond factory, described claims by the union and its supporters as false and exaggerated. She estimated that about 20 to 30 percent of her colleagues in Richmond want to unionize. Montoya claims the union had an “infiltrator” planted at the factory who aimed to convince employees they’re being mistreated. She said homes were visited, food was provided and even rents were paid as part of an effort by the union to gain the trust and support of “the most vulnerable workers,” including recent immigrants.
When asked about pandemic safety at the factory, Moyota credited HelloFresh for lobbying to stay open and allowing workers to keep their jobs. Guembolin Vazquez, a line worker at the Richmond factory since 2019, echoed Moyota’s sentiments, saying she enjoys her work in part due to good wages and benefits. She said she doesn’t think unions are bad, but was turned off by Unite Here’s alleged tactics.
Asked to respond the workers’ allegations against the union, Unite Here provided the Standard with a statement reiterating that Richmond factory workers are not paid enough and that they allegedly work in unsafe conditions.
As part of its statement, HelloFresh provided a “Fact Sheet” listing the compensation and benefits it offers to employees, including a 401K retirement plan with company match, healthcare options that offers a zero premium healthcare plan, paid sick days, holiday pay, parental leave and backup childcare. On Oct. 24, HelloFresh announced its starting hourly wage at its U.S. distribution centers was increasing to $18 per hour, “with a $1 increase after 30 days,” whether or not unionization occurs.
In response to allegations of unsafe working conditions during the pandemic, HelloFresh says investments in safety measures over the last few years have led to “a significant drop” in safety incidents, to the point that rate of incidents is “better than the industry average.” The company also calls itself a leader in COVID-19 response measures, which it says included increased sick pay, daily deep cleanings, paid time off for quarantine and upgraded air filtration systems.
“We were among the first employers in Richmond and Aurora to offer free, onsite COVID-19 vaccines,” the company said.