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'I get forced to work 12-hour days, 7 days a week': Frito-Lay factory worker

"This job wears you down, it tires you and makes you mentally exhausted. It plays with your mind. Some of these guys who work 12 hours a day every day are destroying their marriages. They're destroying their families..," said Mark McCarter, a Frito-Lay worker.

'I get forced to work 12-hour days, 7 days a week': Frito-Lay factory worker
Cover Image Source: Bags of chips manufactured by PepsiCo Frito-Lay brand are seen on a shelf on March 22, 2010, in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Hundreds of Frito-Lay workers at a production plant in Topeka, Kansas, went on strike on July 5, calling for better pay, better working conditions, and less mandatory overtime. Many of the 850 workers at the facility say they have been forced to work 84 hours a week with no days off ever since the factory revved up operations in response to a pandemic-era surge in demand. Although employees are nominally supposed to work eight-hour shifts, workers say they are often forced to add on an extra four hours before or after their shifts due to a shortage in manpower.


These extended shifts have come to be known as "suicides" among the workers because they say the schedule slowly kills you over time. Although Frito-Lay has said in its latest contract offer that it would raise wages by four percent over the next two years and put a cap at 60 hours a week, workers who are unionized with Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 218 rejected the proposal as not being enough and are demanding an end to forced overtime. In an interview with VICE, Mark McCarter — a 59-year-old palletizer and union steward at Frito-Lay — gave a shocking glimpse into his job and explained why he's striking now.


"I've worked at the Frito-Lay factory in Topeka, Kansas since I was 19, straight out of high school. I'm a palletizer. I run huge robots that are probably 15 or 20 feet tall and they transport product that comes from the production floor that's already been packaged—Fritos, Doritos, Tostitos, all the Cheetos," McCarter explained. "After 37 years, I still get forced to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Seven years ago, my wife passed away and I spent a lot of time in grief counseling, and I told the company, I don't want to work 12 hours a day seven days a week. I ended up getting FMLA [Family Medical Leave Act unpaid leave], but they're still having me do it sometimes."


"You come in at 7 a.m. and not only do you work eight hours, but when you get off at 3 p.m., they suicide (force you to work a double shift) you and have you come back at 3 am. There's 850 employees and it's true for half or three-quarters of them," he continued. "This job wears you down, it tires you and makes you mentally exhausted. It plays with your mind. Some of these guys who work 12 hours a day every day are destroying their marriages. They're destroying their families... A lot of these guys come in with the understanding that they'll be here for eight hours but then they got to call their wives and kids and say, 'Guess what? It's not eight hours. It's 12 hours and then I have to go back to work at 3 am.'"


McCarter explained that although Frito-Lay has been alerted about the need to fix the present situation and rectify its ways, "when they bring in new people, they force the same schedule on them and they quit." He claimed that working conditions are so bad, it has taken a toll on many workers' health. "This is not a good job," said McCarter. "At 7 am, our warehouse is 100 degrees. We don't have air conditioning. We have cooks in the kitchen on the fryers that are 130 or 140 degrees making chips and sweating like pigs. Meanwhile, the managers have A/C. I make $20.50 [an hour] after 37 years here. Most people make between $16.50 and $20 an hour. I haven't gotten a raise in a decade. Three years ago, I got a $600 bonus that was taxed, and three years before that I got another $600 bonus. That was my only 'raise' for the past 10 years. This is from a Fortune 500 company that is making billions."


"I can tell you that many people have had heart attacks in the heat at Frito-Lay since I've been here. One guy died a few years ago and the company had people pick him up, move him over to the side, and put another person in his spot without shutting the business down for two seconds," he stated. "It seems like I go to one funeral a year for someone who's had a heart attack at work or someone who went home to their barn and shot themselves in the head or hung themselves." McCarter said that the only reason he hasn't quit the job yet is that in two more years, he'll be able to get "a union pension acquired over 37 years. I've spent so much time here that I might as well take that pension and social security and call it quits."


"I think people are pushed to the edge," he added. "COVID created some of this. During COVID, managers got to work from home. People see that and realize they have other options. Everyone's hiring and raising their pay because no one wants to work for $8 an hour anymore. We would rather nobody buy any Frito-Lay products, Fritos, Doritos, Tostitos, Funyuns, Cheetos, all those, while we're on strike. We make all of those in Topeka, Kansas. We also would rather nobody buys PepsiCo products while we're on the line. PepsiCo is the owner of Frito-Lay. We're hoping we can get these people back to work with a decent wage and some kind of alternative to all this forced overtime. Honestly, I don't know how what they're doing is legal."


In a statement to the publication, a spokesperson for Frito-Lay said: "Frito-Lay is committed to providing a safe and fair workplace for all of our employees, and we provide resources for any employee struggling with depression or other mental health issues. We have no knowledge of any associate taking their own life as a result of work conditions, and there have been no confirmed job-related deaths at the Topeka plant." They also "wholly rejected" the claim that an employee "collapsed and died" and that the company "moved the body and put in another co-worker to keep the line going."

"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," the spokesperson added. "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."

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