Updated October 26, 2021 @ 8:45 a.m.
On one of his first days training as a forklift operator at HelloFresh’s Aurora distribution center, Brandon Lolin says he witnessed an accident.
A large plastic pallet holding meal kit supplies slid off its 30 ft. tall shelving and injured several workers. Lolin was tending to forklift equipment nearby when he heard a “strange sliding noise.”
“I looked over and saw the thing teetering above several people,” he said. “And then it fell.”
He looked away and heard the pallet crash to the floor. Then, quiet.
No workers died from the accident, which took place in June. But several were injured, according to witnesses and public records the company filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Many workers are still processing the accident and feel the company hasn’t taken steps to address their concerns.
“That’s the main thing that I want for me and my coworkers,” Lolin said. “Just to be heard where our safety is concerned.”
Lolin is one of hundreds of workers at the Aurora facility preparing to vote next Thursday in what labor advocates say is the country’s first union election in the growing meal kit delivery industry.
Workers in California and New Jersey are taking similar steps, but the Aurora group is furthest along in the process.
HelloFresh workers are unionizing for safer working conditions and higher pay.
Workers say the effort is in response to the June accident and a broader desire to improve working conditions inside the company’s fast-paced warehouses. Many also want higher pay.
In a statement, a HelloFresh spokeswoman said the company respects each employee's right to vote on unionization and that it is addressing workers’ safety concerns.
After the accident in its Aurora warehouse, the company took “immediate steps” to update safety protocols and correct hazards, said Saskia Leisewitz, HelloFresh’s global lead of communications.
“We work directly with our team members every day to advocate for improvements and continuously enhance our safety programs,” Leisewitz said. “Our employees are at the heart of everything we do, and we are committed to their health, safety and wellbeing above all else.”
Several dozen pro-union workers and supporters rallied outside of the Aurora distribution center on Oct. 10, cheering at passing cars and waving signs reading “HELLOFRESH WORKER JUSTICE” and “Aurora has your back!”
Mariah Wood, an assembly line lead who was working when the June pallet accident happened, spoke at the rally about the incident. The impact broke several vertebrae in one worker’s back, she said, and the person still hasn’t been able to return to work.
“They have stacks and stacks of medical bills piling up,” Wood told the crowd. “We want justice, and that’s why I’m organizing the union.”
HelloFresh confirmed the worker has not been on the job since the accident. The company has paid workers compensation to cover the individual’s medical expenses, Leisewitz said.
CPR was unable to reach the worker directly. Through a union organizer, she declined to comment.
HelloFresh is the world's largest meal kit producer. But the company's success and growth doesn't benefit everyone, workers say.
The unionization effort comes as HelloFresh and other meal kit delivery companies flourish internationally.
Since forming in Germany in 2011, HelloFresh has grown into the world’s largest meal kit producer, specializing in delivering ready-to-cook meals straight to people’s doors.
Customer orders hit an all-time high of 31 million earlier this year, according to quarterly earnings reports. That number was a 71 percent jump from a year prior.
The company acquired rival Green Chef and its distribution facilities, including the Aurora location, in 2018. Since then, it has doubled its Aurora staff to roughly 400 forklift operators, chefs, and assembly line workers.
The company is planning to move into a new 150,000 square foot facility in the state in 2022, and hire hundreds more workers, Leisewitz said. She did not confirm its location.
HelloFresh’s rapid growth is what drew Noah Canady to apply for a job at the Aurora facility in August 2020.
He started on the assembly line, packing up to 1,000 meal kit boxes with ice each day. After several weeks, he developed chronic pain in his shoulder, he said.
Despite the discomfort, Canady kept coming to work. Within a couple months, he was promoted to a position that put less stress on his body, he said.
He wants the company to offer better benefits, like more PTO, for all employees — especially those who still work on assembly lines.
“I have friends that will call out of work just so they can give their body a rest,” Canady said. “We shouldn’t have to do that.”
He thinks a union could put pressure on the company to make those and other types of changes, including pay raises.
“I want this to be a job that people are going to be, like, proud to retire at,” Canady said.
The HelloFresh union effort is just one example of a 'resurgence of labor' in the United States.
The number of union elections and membership across the country has declined steadily over the past decade, according to data from the National Labor Relations Board. But that trend may reverse in the coming years, said James Walsh, a political science professor at the University of Colorado Denver who studies labor movements.
The effort at HelloFresh facilities is just one example of a broader “resurgence of labor,” happening across the country right now, he said. Walsh pointed to recent strike votes at John Deere, Kaiser Permanente and other larger employers across the country as examples.
“We’re seeing workers stepping up in a way we haven’t seen in a long time,” Walsh said. “I believe the experiences of the pandemic convinced a lot of workers that going back to the barely surviving existence of minimum wage work was not an option.”
Workers at HelloFresh will begin voting by mail on Oct. 28. The election will last through Nov. 22, when the NLRB will tally votes and announce results. The group hopes to join a local chapter of Unite Here, a national food service and hospitality worker union.
Correction: This story was updated with additional comment from HelloFresh noting that the company provided worker's compensation to the employee injured during a pallet accident in June. The pallet was also incorrectly described as wooden. It was made of plastic.
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!