Hundreds of Frito-Lay workers have been on strike at the company’s Topeka, Kansas plant since July 5, speaking out against grueling hours, unsafe working conditions, and low pay. The multi-billion dollar company’s mistreatment of workers is nothing new: Brandon and Melissa Ingram have been at the receiving end of their harassment for years
Brandon Ingram joined Frito-Lay’s St. Louis, MO team in 2011 after serving in the U.S. Navy. He threw himself into the job, working up to 20 hours straight and 26 days in a row. It put a strain on Brandon and his wife Melissa’s relationship, but they put up with the long shifts and missed family milestones to plan for their future. “We centered our life around him advancing in the company,” Melissa told More Perfect Union.
Brandon was a model employee. He became a site lead and trainer, developed knowledge of both sales and operations, and earned numerous awards from Frito-Lay and its parent company, PepsiCo.
But Brandon’s record meant nothing to the company after he was electrocuted in 2016 while pressing a button for a dock door, a routine part of his job. The shock has left Brandon with liver disease and a pinched nerve caused by two herniated discs—and the experience has turned the Ingrams’ lives upside down.
Despite going to the ER and reporting severe pain, the company did not give Brandon any time off after the incident, forcing him to call in sick the next day. Frito-Lay also refused to adjust Brandon’s work hours and responsibilities, “I asked for modified service. I asked for some kind of relief, period, because I was still obligated to work—like, picking cases, and unloading trucks, or rotating product on a forklift,” Brandon said. “They were like, ‘You can only work 40 hours a week.’”
Frito-Lay also forced Brandon to see company-approved doctors who provided inadequate care. “We passed 4 hospitals on the way to the hospital they wanted to take me to,” Brandon recalled. “And the reason is because they signed a contract with a certain hospital and a certain network.” The Frito-Lay affiliated physicians denied Brandon’s requests for an MRI, prescribing physical therapy that Melissa believes made his condition worse.
When Brandon finally got an MRI from his primary care physician, they found two herniated discs in his back. His condition could only be fixed through surgery: “If I didn’t have the surgery, the doctor said any small fall, or accident, or something like that and I would have been paralyzed from the neck down, or dead,” Brandon said.
Frito-Lay and PepsiCo did nothing to help. “From the moment that he couldn’t work anymore and needed short-term disability, they abandoned us,” Melissa said. “He pushed a button at work, a button he can’t avoid pushing. He had to push it, it’s his job. But now it’s like they’re trying everything and anything to say it’s not their responsibility.”
In order to obtain long-term disability Brandon had to prove he was injured, requiring multiple doctors visits to confirm his condition. “But guess what? You don’t have any insurance anymore through PepsiCo/Frito-Lay ’cause they cut you off,” Brandon recalled. “So guess what? I borrowed money, or used credit cards, or whatever I could. I even took money out of my kid’s piggy bank.”
With nowhere else to turn, the Ingrams sued Frito-Lay several months after the accident. “I never wanted to have a lawsuit. It’s just not me,” Brandon said. “But I did ask for help and I wasn’t getting it.”
In response to the lawsuit, Frito-Lay hired private investigators to try and discredit Brandon’s injury. “I don’t know how many people they’ve given our address, and name, and information to, just to prove my husband wrong,” Melissa said. “Recording my kids playing in the yard, recording me doing yard work, recording me going through drive-thrus. They follow me in traffic on the highway, in streets. They followed me when I gave birth to my baby. They followed me when I went to my daughter’s school.” The years of surveillance drove the family to homeschool their daughter because of fears for her safety.
The Ingrams don’t understand why a company that made $18 billion last year is investing so much to avoid paying disability benefits. Frito-Lay and PepsiCo’s senior executives make millions, Melissa noted. “But my husband is worth $0 because he’s no longer able to push those chips.”
“You would think that I’m a bad employee, the way that everything has went,” Brandon reflected. “Why are you fighting so hard to say that I’m not hurt instead of just—look at the paperwork, look at the medical stuff, look at everything I’ve been through.”
Five years after Brandon’s accident, the Ingrams are still struggling. “Honestly, all the life goals, and marriage goals, and family goals are gone, and I just have to figure out how to survive,” Melissa said. “We don’t know what’s gonna happen from day-to-day. My husband stops breathing at night in his sleep—I have to wake him up at night to make sure he keeps breathing. I have to help my children who don’t understand that they can’t jump and play with daddy.”
“I’m 36, I should be able to play with my kids in a yard,” Brandon added. “I just want my life back.”