Hundreds of striking Frito-Lay workers in Kansas are calling on one of the nation’s biggest snack makers to put an end to forced overtime and 84-hour workweeks brought on by a pandemic-era surge in demand.
Many of the factory’s more than 800 workers are working seven days a week and up to 12 hours per shift, with just eight hours between clocking in and clocking out, according to the union’s international president, Anthony Shelton.
“They are forcing the current workforce to work double and triple shifts,” Shelton said. “Workers do not have enough time to see their family, do chores around the house, run errands, or even get a healthy night’s sleep.”
In an email to The Washington Post, Frito-Lay said it is “committed to providing a safe and fair workplace” and that the offer it made Local 218 on July 1 “addresses the concerns” that have been raised about the Topeka facility. Under the proposed contract, workers would receive a 4 percent wage increase over the next two years and the workweek would be capped at 60 hours.
“We believe the strike unnecessarily puts our employees at risk of economic hardship, and we are focused on resolving this matter as expeditiously and fairly as possible,” the emailed statement said. “While we work to resolve the strike, we remain focused on continuing to run the operations of the plant in Topeka and set a contingency plan to ensure employee safety.”
It also said 300 of the plant’s 850 employees are still reporting for work.
The maker of Cheetos, Doritos and Tostitos is a division of New York-based PepsiCo, the food and beverage giant with a market cap north of $211 billion. PepsiCo did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but earlier this week, the company said revenue is up 14 percent year to date, fueled in part by the success of Frito-Lay, which recorded more than $4.2 billion in sales last year as pandemic-bound Americans loaded up on snack foods.
It also announced it had raised its full-year earnings forecast amid heightened demand for its products. PepsiCo, which took in more than $70 billion in revenue in 2020 and has seen its stock surge more than 19 percent since last year, said it plans to raise prices this year because of supply chain disruptions and other pandemic-related challenges.
The price increases also will help offset higher advertising and marketing costs, which rose 30 percent last quarter as the company sought to take advantage of the nation’s reopening after more than a year of pandemic-fueled restrictions, the company’s chief financial officer, Hugh Johnston, told Reuters.
“Performance in the food service channels was very sudden after three quarters of negative growth,” he said. “It opened up very rapidly and there was a lot of desire for people to get out as they got vaccinated.”
But Monk Drapeaux-Stewart, a box-drop technician at the Topeka facility, says workers are not sharing in the company’s gains. He told Labor Notes that his wages have increased only 77 cents in the past 12 years.
The Local 218 said PepsiCo is “exploiting its dedicated employees and risking their health” by forcing them to work so many hours.
“The union has repeatedly asked the company to hire more workers, and yet despite record profits, Frito-Lay management has refused this request,” Shelton said.
In a letter to Frito-Lay published in the Topeka Capital-Journal, Cherie Renfro, another worker at the plant, said that “iron-fisted management” has created a toxic environment. She said workers did not receive hazard pay, bonuses or other pandemic-specific considerations and that their safety concerns have been brushed aside by supervisors.
When a worker collapsed on the line and died, “you had us move the body and put in another co-worker to keep the line going,” Renfro wrote.
Frito-Lay told The Post it was unsure what incident Renfro was referencing but that it “wholly rejects” her allegations. The company said it is aware of two incidents in the past five years in which an employee “experienced a medical emergency” at the plant and later died.
“In both cases, medical attention was initially provided at the plant and work ceased until the associates were safely on the way to the hospital,” Frito-Lay said.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration website, the Topeka plant has been fined in cases involving amputation and vehicle accidents in recent years. The agency is currently investigating a May incident involving a forklift.
The strike started after midnight July 5. Local 218′s contract negotiating committee is slated to meet with Frito-Lay again Monday to resume negotiations, the Capital-Journal reported.