Employees say death at work didn’t stop Topeka Frito-Lay production, but company claims otherwise

TOPEKA (KSNT) – Two employees have claimed work continued as normal after someone died on the production line at Frito-Lay’s Topeka plant, but the company has a different account of what happened.

The report of the death on the production line surfaced while Frito-Lay workers went on strike for better workplace conditions. After protesting for 17 days, the workers’ union reached a tentative agreement with the company Wednesday night. The union members have yet to vote to affirm it. Many striking workers have said they want issues like forced overtime and a lack of pay raises resolved in a new deal.

Workers hold signs across from the Topeka Frito-Lay plant, in the midst of a strike that started July 5. (KSNT Photo)

Some staff have also made allegations that highlight the workplace conditions that led to the strike.

In an opinion piece penned in a local newspaper by Frito-Lay employee Cheri Renfro, she wrote that a coworker collapsed and died, and the plant had staff move the body while another employee took their place in the production line. Another worker and local union steward, Mark McCarter, affirmed Renfro’s account and told Vice News that the person died on the production line of a heart attack. He also mentioned separate incidents where former coworkers killed themselves after going home.

“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.”

Mark McCarter, a Frito-Lay employee, to Vice News

KSNT News reached out to Renfro about the workplace death, but she did not respond. When KSNT asked McCarter about the death on the production line, he said Renfro’s account was accurate and also mentioned a coworker that went home and committed suicide.

“There is somebody personal to me,” McCarter said. “His name was Lonny and years ago he went home and hung himself. So it offends me personally when I see the foolishness. It offends me when a company won’t tell the truth and say ‘Hey, this actually happened, what he’s saying is true.’ But you hear the company say ‘We don’t know what they’re talking about, this is the first time we’ve ever heard this.'”

Frito-Lay told KSNT News it was aware of not one, but two workplace deaths in the past five years. However, the company said neither incident saw business continue as usual inside the plant, and the employees were not pronounced dead in the building. All work stopped until the two employees were taken out of the plant and were on the way to local hospitals, according to Frito-Lay.

“In the event of an incident that necessitates medical attention, work ceases and the area is cleared for the safety of the individual requiring medical attention and the other employees at the site. While it’s unclear what incident the associate is referencing in the op-ed, 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. 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.” 

Frito-Lay

Renfro did not mention a second death in her op-ed. When KSNT News asked McCarter about Frito-Lay’s statement on the handling of workplace deaths, he said it was not true. He then added that police later came and removed the body from the scene.

The union members will vote on the new tentative agreement with Frito-Lay on Friday.

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