Hundreds of Frito-Lay employees are returning to work in Kansas, ending a 19-day strike with the weekend ratification of a two-year contract that guarantees them at least one day off each week and raises wages.
Workers at the Topeka plant had called on the snack food giant to end forced overtime and 84-hour workweeks, saying they had been pushed to the brink as the factory revved up operations during the pandemic, according to the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 218. Many staffers worked as much as 12-hour shifts with as little as eight hours in between, according to a statement the union’s international president, Anthony Shelton, issued earlier this month.
“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.”
The company had called the union’s claims “grossly exaggerated.” An earlier Frito-Lay offer was voted down, which the company said illustrated that union leadership was “out of touch” with workers’ concerns.
Frito-Lay said the union accepted a contract that addressed some of its concerns, according to a statement released Saturday. In addition to the day-off guarantee, the deal will give the union more input on staffing and overtime decisions, and raise wages 4% over two years.
“We believe our approach to resolving this strikes demonstrates how we listen to our employees, and when concerns are raised, they are taken seriously and addressed,” according to the statement.
About two-thirds of the 850 workers at the Topeka factory joined the walkout that began July 5 and ended July 23. They will return to work this week.
Frito-Lay, the maker of Cheetos, Doritos, Ruffles and other packaged foods, is a unit of PepsiCo, the New York-based food and beverage giant. The snack business has seen strong sales throughout the pandemic as people spent more time at home and continues to gain market share. It brought in $4.5 billion in the second quarter, accounting for 23% of PepsiCo’s revenue.
PepsiCo dipped 0.07% Monday to close at $157.07, giving it a more than $217 billion valuation. The stock has swelled nearly 8.9% in 2021 and 14.1% year over year.
Keeping pace with that demand led to “forced overtime,” the union says, and affected working conditions. In a letter to Frito-Lay published July 2 in the Topeka Capital-Journal, employee Cherie Renfro wrote of a toxic work environment, driven by “iron-fisted management.”
She alleged that employees were made to work in dense smoke and fumes during and after a fire because, they were told, “It’s just smoke.” She said that workers did not receive hazard pay during the pandemic and that their safety concerns were brushed aside by supervisors. And 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.
In a statement earlier this month to The Post, Frito-Lay said it “wholly rejects” Renfro’s 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,” the company said.
Another employee, Pleasant Desch, told New York Magazine that temperatures at the Topeka factory regularly exceed 100 degrees in the summer, sometimes causing people to vomit from the heat.
The Washington Post’s Taylor Telford contributed to this report.