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Frito-Lay Workers Forced to Work 84-Hour Weeks for Months on End Are Now on Strike

A shelf of Fritos and Lays chips in a store.

Content warning: Discussion of suicide.

Hundreds of workers from a Frito-Lay production plant in Topeka, Kansas are on strike, demanding higher wages and an end to the plant’s dangerous, exploitative practice of requiring 84-hour workweeks.

For weeks, the strike has made an impact locally, as many Kansans have either joined in a boycott of Frito-Lay products or seen a shortage of them on shelves.

But in recent days, the strike has finally started to get attention nationwide as more details about the plant’s working conditions come out. These workers are supposed to only be scheduled for standard eight-hour shifts, but due to low staffing they’ve reportedly been required to tack on an extra four hours daily and work six or even seven days a week. Some report working these 84-hour weeks for months straight without a single day off.

Plant workers call these shifts “suicides” because, as Vice writes, the exhaustion and stress “kills you over time.” One employee named Mark McCarter says there have, in fact, been multiple deaths by suicide over the years because of these conditions:

“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 everyday are destroying their marriages. They’re destroying their families,” McCarter told Vice:

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.

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 has been working for Frito-Lay–which is owned by PepsiCo–for 37 years and says he hasn’t received a raise in a decade. That includes a standard cost-of-living raise, one of the things plant workers are demanding in their strike. Other Topeka-area companies of similar size (Goodyear, Mars Wrigley, Target) offer a cost-of-living adjustment of 77 cents per hour. Frito-Lay does not. Union membership recently rejected a contract offer that would have given workers an annual 2% wage increase. For many, that comes out to less than 50¢ an hour.

“This is not a good job,” McCarter says. “At 7am, 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.”

Brent Hall, the union president, says that Frito-Lay has terminated the health insurance of striking employees–just in case we needed yet another example of why health care should absolutely not be tied to employment.

This is the first time this union (Local 218 of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers union) has gone on strike since 1973. McCarter says that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed things for a lot of people:

We’ve had the right to strike for many decades, but we’ve never done it here in Topeka until now. This year, so many people have been working 12 hour days for five, six months at a time, they voted to strike in huge numbers.

I think people are pushed to the edge. 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,” he says. “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.”

Frito-Lay is slated to resume negotiations with the union today. In the meantime, if you’d like to help the Topeka workers by staying on their side of the economic picket line, here’s a helpful guide to PepsiCo products to avoid:

(via KCUR, Vice, image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.