Frito-Lay Workers Detail “Suicide Shifts” Working at a Kansas Plant Amid Strike
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Since July 5, hundreds of Frito-Lay plant workers in Topeka, Kansas have been on strike. On Thursday, the New York Times reported they are “protesting what they call ‘suicide shifts’ and other poor working conditions.”  

The workers are members of Local 128, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union. According to the Times, “they had been pushed to exhaustion and that the company had refused to address their concerns. ‘This strike is about more than wages and benefits,’ Anthony Shelton, the union’s international president, said in a statement. ‘It is about the quality of life for these workers and their families.’” 

The strike captured the attention of the nation after The Topeka Capital-Journal published the missive of Topeka plant employee Cherie Renfro, which included disturbing allegations against her employer, Frito-Lay. In her letter she alleged, “When a co-worker collapsed and died, you had us move the body and put in another co-worker to keep the line going.”  

This audacious claim elicited a response from Frito-Lay, and they posted on their website that “Employees are Not Required to Continue Working if an Associate Requires Emergency Medical Attention: Frito-Lay wholly rejects the recent allegation as entirely false…We are aware of only two instances in the last five years in which an individual has experienced a medical emergency at the plant that unfortunately resulted in that individual passing away. 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 is a subsidiary of PepsiCo, and “the company’s net revenue growth has exceeded all of its targets” recently reporting “a huge jump in revenue in its drinks and snack businesses in the second quarter…in July…its net revenue in the quarter surged 20.5 percent to $19.2 billion from a year earlier.”  

Meanwhile in the plant, workers claim they are often mandated to work forced overtime in unsustainable schedules, with only eight-hour breaks in between a shift, which leaves employees with barely enough time to spend time with their families and loved ones. Other workers have claimed that stress and heat from the job have led to their co-workers suffering heart-attacks at the site.

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Currently, this is the third week of the strike, and a contract offer is now on the table. 13 News in Topeka, Kansas obtained a copy of the offer, which says that all employees will be guaranteed their sixth or seventh day of the workweek off unless the employee has already taken any form of time off in the workweek.  

As the local news channel reported, “the document said time off includes but is not limited to calling off, refusing mandatory overtime, vacation of less than a full week, sick day holiday, unpaid funeral leave, any other type of personal leave whether paid or unpaid. The offer said ‘suicide shifts’, or 12-hour shifts with only an eight-hour break in between them, will end no more than 30 days from the date the contract is approved.”  

Frito-Lay is unsurprisingly pushing for acceptance of this offer, believing the terms to be generous and fair.  

The striking workers have “also called for a national boycott on Frito-Lay products, as well as those produced by PepsiCo, for the remainder of the strike. If successful, the boycott would mean living in a world without Doritos, Cheetos, Fritos, Tostitos and Sun Chips. Temporarily, at least,” according to NPR.  

In an article covering this issue, Vox discussed what the public can do to help the workers—hinting at the fact that “best way to help Frito-Lay workers may not be to stop buying Doritos for two weeks, but instead to support pro-labor politicians and policies.”