Every day hoards of tourists peer through the windows into the kitchen at Amy’s Bread in Chelsea Market. Amy Scherber takes pride in the fact that all of the breads are made by hand with all natural ingredients; they’re never pre-baked, never frozen. There’s always flour-covered workers kneading and mixing dough behind the glass, a moving tableau for the masses.
She calls the company her family and is proud to have been in business – and growing – since 1992.
The workers don’t agree with Amy. They say the pay is too low and they deserve more respect for the work they do. The fight at Amy’s Bread is indicative of the minimum wage battle playing out in small businesses across the city.
Amy said she was surprised when she received a letter requesting a meeting about the alleged abysmal working environment.
Brandworkers, a workers’ rights organization, helped the workers at Amy’s Bread get organized. Last year, they sent a letter requesting a meeting and outlined their demands on the website amysbread.brandworkers.org. The three main goals of the campaign are better treatment, regular wage increases and affordable healthcare. Brandworkers wants to help the workers unionize. Amy, however, says it’s just a few disgruntled employees that are stirring up the fight and that she runs her business with dignity and respect.
“We acknowledged that their goals and our goals are the same,” Amy Scherber said. “We have 190 people making bread by hand. I opened in ‘92 it’s important for me to take care of my staff, we’re one big family, it’s evident if you go to our stores.”
The campaign’s website has testimonial from workers. Ana Rico says she’s “washing hundreds of baking trays by hand each shift because the company refuses to make basic equipment repair.”
Marcos Massa, another worker hoping to unionize, claimed the pay isn’t good enough.
“I have to work three jobs to support my kids,” said Massa.
Brandworkers launched a social media fight that they called the Holiday Blizzard Campaign. They rallied around the hashtag #whomakesamysbread on Twitter, Vine, Instagram and Facebook. They also protested in front of the stores with signs that said:
“Amy: This Christmas share the dough with the people who make it.”
“Workers knead dignity and fair pay.”
Amy said she can’t afford to pay her workers more. She said her starting rates are higher than industry standards; she offers $11.25 for an entry-level job as a baker. She’s worried that a union would bankrupt her business. She would not divulge her company’s median wages.
“I want to treat them well and pay as much as possible and take good care of them. I share as much as I can and increase wages,” said Amy.
She said that out of the 22 years that Amy’s Bread has been in business they have only forgone raises two years; during the 2008 recession. Her business has been doing better in recent years – making enough to move to a new and bigger location in Long Island City – but the expansion was a big investment and she said she isn’t profitable right now.
Amy’s Bread opened in 1992 and in 1993 she started offering health care plans. She said she could only afford to cover half the cost because the plans are prohibitively expensive for a company with 190 employees. Although with the new healthcare expansion under Obamacare, she said she is now offering two very affordable plans for her employees.
As for the last demand – the treatment of her workers – Amy said she has the utmost respect and tries to foster a good working environment. She said that if a manager is speaking or acting unprofessionally toward a worker that they should let her know and the manager will be disciplined.
Diana Marino, an organizer with Brandworkers, said they got involved because the public perception is that Amy’s Bread is a good, upstanding, family-run business. She said the wages are too low and she wants the community to know what they’re buying into when they buy a baguette from Amy.
The unionization campaign has been waging for almost a year, during a time while fast food workers have been striking and low-wage workers’ rights have been in the forefront of political discussions. Minimum wage battles have taken place across the country and even President Obama has voiced support of a higher “living” wage.
Last week Amy finally agreed to sit down with Brandworkers and some of her employees. She agreed that raising the minimum wage is important but she said there are prohibiting factors that keep wages low.
“An important element of the food industry is that the cost of food is quite cheap, it’s under priced for things we have in the US,” she said. “The fact is, until the customer is willing to spend 30 cents more on a baguette than they do now, it’s not possible to raise that number and have a higher price point for making something by hand.”