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Colorado HelloFresh workers to vote on unionizing after claims of unsafe conditions

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hundreds of people who work for the New Jersey-based meal kit company HelloFresh have petitioned for a vote to unionize. They're following fellow HelloFresh employees in California and Colorado who've scheduled votes to form the first unions in the multibillion-dollar meal kit industry. Business for the company is up 70% since the pandemic began, but workers say success has come at the expense of their safety. Colorado Public Radio's Matt Bloom reports.

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MATT BLOOM, BYLINE: For several weeks, workers have been rallying for unionization outside of HelloFresh's distribution centers in the California Bay Area and here in the metro Denver suburb of Aurora. This one is a big industrial warehouse where round-the-clock shifts crank out more than 7,000 prepackaged prepared meals each day.

MARIAH WOOD: Hi, my name is Mariah. I'm a line lead here.

BLOOM: Some workers say the pace is dangerous. Worker Mariah Wood is addressing the crowd.

WOOD: I was here when a pallet fell from the third shelf of racking. It's about 30 feet up.

BLOOM: This past summer, she says, workers were rushing to meet daily goals when a wooden pallet containing hundreds of pounds of frozen meals teetered off of its shelving.

WOOD: We have watched this accident happen four times in the four months leading up to that night, only before, no one had ever been underneath it. Only this time, four people were underneath.

BLOOM: The pallet crushed the workers, leaving some with bruises. One woman still hasn't been able to return to work.

WOOD: Her back was broken in four places. The company has done nothing to help them. They have stacks and stacks of medical bills piling up.

BLOOM: Shortly after the accident, workers started circulating a petition to hold a union election. Now more than a thousand workers in California and Colorado are preparing to vote on whether to join a local chapter of UNITE HERE, a national food service and hospitality worker union. HelloFresh declined an interview request for this story. A company statement says it respects each employee's right to choose or refuse union membership and is working on ways to improve health and safety conditions.

BRANDON LOLIN: I think that's the main thing that I want for me and my co-workers - just to be heard, where our safety is concerned.

BLOOM: Forklift operator Brandon Lolin saw the accident that injured his co-workers in June. He says not enough has changed since then and wants a union to push for more safety training and equipment.

LOLIN: Because, you know, it's pretty traumatic.

BLOOM: Earlier this year, partly in response to workplace conditions, Amazon warehouse employees in Alabama tried and failed to form what would have been that company's first union. Despite that, James Walsh, a political science professor at the University of Colorado, says...

JAMES WALSH: What's happening today is exciting. There's a resurgence of labor.

BLOOM: Walsh says attitudes around workplace conditions and particularly around pay have changed over the past year and a half.

WALSH: I believe that the experience of the pandemic convinced a lot of workers that going back to the barely surviving existence of minimum-wage work was not an option. And so that's what we're seeing. We're seeing low-wage workers saying we are worth something more. We have human dignity, and we're going to organize.

BLOOM: Noah Canady, a worker on the HelloFresh pack line, says he can't afford to start the family he wants on his $16-an-hour wage, especially with Colorado's high cost of living.

NOAH CANADY: I'm, like, 24 now. But, like, in the next, like, four or five years, it's like, OK, what about kids and having a house for kids? And when I think about how much I make now and where my life is currently going, that's just not possible, just, like, financially.

BLOOM: He hopes forming a union can help change that. Voting begins on October 28 and will last through mid-November. For NPR News, I'm Matt Bloom in Aurora, Colo.

SHAPIRO: And we'll note that HelloFresh is among NPR's financial supporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF PECAS SONG, "T-SHIRT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.