The Backbreaking Work That Goes Into a Bag of Chips

Photo: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

One night on the third shift at the Frito-Lay factory in Topeka, Kansas, Pleasant Desch walked in and noticed that part of the piping system that carries boiling acid was missing after contractors had come in to perform work. A furious Desch said she went up the supervisory chain, demanding to know why no one had told her about the missing piece of pipe. “This could have been a hospital trip,” she said. No one could explain to her why she hadn’t been informed. To Desch, the incident illustrates years-old problems with working for Frito-Lay. “There’s a lot of situations like that where it’s dangerous. We’re operating machinery. We’re turning equipment on and cleaning it,” she said. “And they don’t care.”

Desch is now one of hundreds of workers on strike from their jobs at the Topeka factory, which manufactures Cheetos, Lay’s potato chips, and Doritos, among other brand-name snacks. In recent days, the strike has gained national attention with shocking allegations by workers. One worker, Cherie Renfro, alleged in a letter to the Topeka Capital-Journal that when a colleague died, the company “had us move the body and put in another co-worker to keep the line going.” In an interview with Vice, another worker said he consistently works 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Workers aren’t just demanding better wages — they also want an end to forced overtime that leaves only an eight-hour break between shifts, according to the union.

For its part, the company has claimed that workers are exaggerating conditions inside the plant that employs roughly 850 people, not all of whom are on strike. “Our records indicate 19 employees worked 84 hours in a given work week in 2021, with 16 of those as a result of employees volunteering for overtime and only 3 being required to work,” Frito-Lay said in a statement reported by NPR.

Workers are expected to function in temperatures that can exceed 100 degrees in the summer, according to Desch. People “fall out,” she added, and throw up from the heat. Then they’ll come back to work. “Maybe they didn’t have the points to go home sick after getting sick, or because they don’t want to shorten the crew and have the rest of us pick up the slack,” she speculated. RaShaun Thompson, who works an average of 60 hours per week, said he has seen people being carried out of the facility on stretchers. Frito-Lay, in a statement, said it is “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.”

The physical demands imposed by their schedules are difficult, but there are emotional costs, too. Thompson said the schedules “cause a lot of friction on people’s families” and have ruined marriages. “But it’s always like Frito-Lay has to come first.” Samuel Huntsman, who has been with Frito-Lay for three years, worked “seven days a week, usually,” in the facility’s warehouse. “Sometimes I got my weekends off, but it would only be, like, half a weekend. I’d have to go to work and work half the shift and then I’d be able to get home,” he added. “So I was one of the lucky ones. I at least got four hours off on my weekends.” Since then, he has transferred to a different department that affords him more time with his 1-year-old son.

“I hope it [gets us] better treatment,” he said of the strike. He wants better wages and an end to forced overtime.

Desch agreed. “I would like to say this: This has been a brewing storm. It didn’t happen overnight — this has been a downward spiral,” she said. Things weren’t always so bad at Frito-Lay, she added. “When I was younger, you heard about people working for Frito-Lay, and it was with pride. It was one of the best companies to work for here,” she said. “And when I started, to now, it’s went from being that, to bad, to even worse. It’s just been a rapid decline.”

Thompson added, “You know, at the end of the day, I just want to feel appreciated for what I do.” When he first started working for Frito-Lay, on the warehouse side of the facility, “I was in a robotic mode, because that was during the time that I had worked eight months straight.” He was making money, supporting his family, and buying them gifts and items they needed. “I wasn’t really seeing the big picture at the time,” he said. “Once I actually got the taste of some days off, it really hit me. It just opened up the door to me about how much I’ve actually been missing out on other people’s lives.”

The Backbreaking Work That Goes Into a Bag of Chips