While watching her co-worker carried out of the lunchroom, Rosa Baires noticed her headache had not abated, and she was feeling tired. It seemed strange to Rosa that almost everyone mentioned similar symptoms. Supervisors responded to workers concerns by declaring, “you are making a big deal out of nothing!”
She stayed close to her husband, who encouraged her to rest and drink some water. Rosa then felt her heart palpitate right before she fainted. She awoke, “near a dumpster and then an ambulance arrived.”
Rosa would later learn that on February 11th she had succumbed to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning while working at Franklin Street Bakery in South Minneapolis.
Several sources knowledgeable about the case have suggested that the CO poisoning is likely caused by a lack of adequate ventilation of exhaust produced by the industrial gas ovens. Rosa also alleges that there are no operational CO sensors. An Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation is ongoing.
The bakery is co-owned by Wayne Kostroski, a prominent figure in the constellation of events leading up to the Super Bowl. Kostroski heads, "Taste of the NFL," a high profile celebratory fundraiser sanctioned by the Minneapolis Super Bowl Host Committee. The centerpiece is food prepared by celebrity chefs. Marketing for “Taste of the NFL” encourages wealthy benefactors to “Party with a Purpose.” A Star Tribune reporter mentioned that the event is one of the most coveted tickets of the week.
Kostroski has been hosting these events since 1992. This year has added significance since the game is being played in his home state.
Hazardous Working Conditions
For the past two years, workers at Franklin Street Bakery have been organizing to form a union. Their campaign has highlighted workplace abuses including low wages, arbitrary treatment, and managers who bully, yell and curse. Workers also allege that managers have inappropriately touched female employees. Antiquated machinery not regularly maintained creates dangerous working conditions.
The Fire Department’s incident report from February 11th notes that, upon their arrival, carbon monoxide levels measured at 280 parts per million (ppm). These levels can be deadly. According to OSHA, the Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) for Carbon Monoxide is 50 ppm, and 35 ppm is recommended. OSHA standards prohibit worker exposure to more than an average of 50 ppm during an 8-hour period.
However, “OSHA recognizes that many of its permissible exposure limits (PELs) are outdated and inadequate for ensuring protection of worker health. Most of OSHA’s PELs were issued shortly after adoption of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act in 1970, and have not been updated since that time.”
In contrast, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has articulated a lower safe exposure limit of 35 ppm for CO.
Rosa explained that her shift started at 1 am, and she went to the Emergency room at 7 am. However, it is unclear when exposure started and for how long workers experienced the toxic exposure to carbon monoxide.
Rosa has been a stalwart leader of the organizing campaign, gaining attention when she was fired and got her job back. Her resolve to form a union is furthered by CO poisoning. However, she is not without fear. “I almost died over there. I am scared to go back to work with no [carbon monoxide] alarms.” For low wage workers, the pressure to work can make a bad situation tolerable because as Rosa describes, “if you do not work you do not eat. “
According to publicly available OSHA records, Franklin Street Bakery has had three OSHA inspections in the last decade. Two of the inspections in April 2011 and October 2006 found serious violations. Incident reports obtained through a Data Practices Act request from OSHA reveal that the ovens have been a prior problem. According to the inspection report, “the employer did not develop, document, nor utilize written, specific procedures for the control of potentially hazardous energy” emanating from the “Gemini Ovens in the Production Area on a routine basis." The 2006 violation resulted from a worker falling 8 feet. It was found that there weren't appropriate safeguards to protect workers. Furthermore, “The Employer had not conducted oven inspections by the required personnel and at the required frequency listed above.”
In practice, OSHA enforcement is limited to nominal fines. According to a representative from OSHA, "it is rare" for a violator to be criminally prosecuted for hazards they are found responsible for in their workplace. Representatives from the County Attorney’s office mentioned that their workplace investigations almost exclusively focus on wage theft.
Despite the potentially lethal working conditions at the Franklin Street Bakery, Kostroski has received various awards for his business and charity endeavors, including:
● James Beard Humanitarian of the Year, 2010.
● The Pope John XXIII Humanitarian Award from Viterbo University, La Crosse, Wis.
● Minnesota Vikings Quarterback Club Award for outstanding community service
● “Pedestal Award” given to NFL players and “off-the-field” champions who give back to the community.
Publicly Funded Exploitation of Communities of Color
Workers allege it is not only the machinery that is damaging but also the prevalent racial bias. Before the organizing drive, bakery management circulated a memo declaring that workers weren’t allowed to speak their first languages on the job. The workforce is majority immigrant, most native Spanish speakers. There are also workers from Somalia and other East African countries. After workers complained, the offending language memo was eventually withdrawn.
In a 2014 lecture at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, Kostroski explained that it would have made more sense to move outside of Minneapolis to a more expansive, less expensive property. However, staying in Minneapolis meant that the bakery could play a role in improving the community. Kostroski stated, "It gives our employees an incredible sense of pride in their work and in the company to know that we are an integral part of the impetus of change in this community." He continued that 85% of his workers are "minorities," going so far as to joke that the bakery resembles the United Nations.
Building the bakery in the Philips neighborhood had financial advantages for Kastroski, as evidenced in city and county records.
Another $1.2 million came from a Small Business Administration (SBA) 504 loan.
In 2015, Franklin Street Bakery received HUBZone certification from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which makes the bakery eligible for federal contracts that require HUBZone contractors or subcontractors.
According to a Department of Justice Report, at the time, the Phillips neighborhood was coming out of the high murder rates of the infamous period dubbed, "Murderapolis." It was believed that subsidizing business through public development funds to establish a presence in troubled neighborhoods could improve the area and reduce crime. The specific site was chosen with the intention of razing a gas station known for its propensity for drug dealing and crime. Mayor of Minneapolis at the time, R. T. Rybak, was quoted to have said,
Local writer Chaun Webster disagrees with this premise. He argues that "there is a class of people that have disproportionate access to credit, and that class of people exploits labor. The exploitation of labor happens in a variety of ways including wage theft and the mind-body damage that arises under these conditions."
In response to the carbon monoxide poisoning and revelations that Kostroski was awarded city development funds to build the Franklin Street Bakery, Webster argues that "the implications of what happens with exploited labor, the way black and brown bodies are treated as disposable, are a part of the nature of development, not an exception. Ultimately, the city tries token gestures with black and brown folks to establish a false sense of uplift rather than making real and targeted investments where communities have an actual stake in their labor."
The myriad abuses alleged by workers and the carbon monoxide poisoning along with the lack of responsiveness from Kostroski has moved the Bakers union to organize a counter, “Taste of Justice Event." The event will raise money for the food shelves that many bakery employees depend on. There will then be a march and rally to Kostroski's, "Taste of the NFL." Those interested are asked to meet at the Saint Paul Regional Labor Federation, 353 W 7th Street, St. Paul on Saturday at 5 pm.