Afton Cyrus was in her element when she started as a recipe tester at America’s Test Kitchen: braising short ribs in red wine, searing swordfish in agrodolce sauce and perfecting the crumb on her date nut bread. Though the job was a dream come true, Cyrus’ roughly $30,000 salary presented a disconnect between the glamorous, well-stocked kitchens at work and bare cupboards at home.
“There were times I could not afford groceries,” Cyrus said. “I had to make choices in the grocery store about what I could and couldn’t buy while I was developing recipes at work I could never afford to make at home.”
Seven years later, Cyrus has joined with about 100 other employees to form a union represented by the Communications Workers of America local 1400, a union chapter that also represents members of the GBH newsroom. A supermajority of non-management staffers on Tuesday delivered a letter to management demanding higher base pay and salary transparency, lower health insurance premiums and efforts to address “structural inequities” that they say lead to high turnover and understaffing.
For the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election, 30% of workers need to sign cards or a petition saying they want a union. As of Wednesday, employees at America’s Test Kitchen say they have the support of at least 66% of workers.
America’s Test Kitchen spokesman Brian Franklin said if the majority of workers vote in favor of unionizing, management will bargain in good faith with that union. But the company appeared to rule out voluntarily recognizing the union without a vote.
“The management of the company is proud of the fact that it has worked with, and been responsive to, employees when they raise concerns,” Franklin said, “and it would prefer to continue to work directly and collectively with employees in the future, rather than have to deal with a union on their behalf.”
America’s Test Kitchen has produced decades of cookbooks, podcasts, websites, magazines and 30-minute cooking shows broadcast by PBS and Create, a digital network owned by American Public Television, GBH and WNET. When founder Christopher Kimball left the company over a contract dispute in 2016 and started “Milk Street,” a direct competitor produced by PBS and GBH, America’s Test Kitchen moved its more than 250 employees to a new studio in Boston’s Seaport district, where cooks test recipes between 40 and 60 times.
The typical salary for a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen ranges from $43,781 to $53,000 per year, according to Glassdoor.com, which provides information about companies. Salaries for other positions are “opaque and amorphous,” Cyrus says, varying greatly between departments, many of which she says are understaffed.
“It’s a tremendous amount of work, and we’re consistently working 12- or 13-hour days without additional compensation,” Cyrus said. “Making sure we have enough culinary producers and people to staff the shoots is a massive challenge.”
Senior editor Camila Chaparro, a recipe tester for cookbooks, said her team lost five cooks in the last year, “talented colleagues who had excellent credentials, brought so much to their work but just really hit a wall and couldn’t continue working there.”
Former senior editor Andrew Janjigian said on the union organizers’ website he was driven out after 11 years by a competitive workplace culture where some employees “get groomed as ‘talent’ while everyone else must fight for the recognition they deserve.”
Management disputed the negative characterizations of its workplace.
“In an industry that has seen layoffs and tremendous turnover, America’s Test Kitchen is proud that our employee retention is high and that our employees see the opportunities to advance in positions of responsibility and compensation,” Franklin said in a statement. “America’s Test Kitchen did not undergo any layoffs or furloughs during the pandemic, and we offer very strong compensation and benefits for full time and part time employees, including health care, three months maternity and paternity leave, compassionate leave, a matching 401K plan, half-day Fridays, equipment giveaways, and many other employee benefits. ”
Many employees come from previous positions in restaurants or publishing, “industries that are notorious for underpaying and overworking their staff,” children’s department staff writer Chad Chenail said. “I think there’s an assumption from management that they can continue to underpay people and get away with it.”
Last month, employees at Condé Nast, the publisher of culinary magazine Bon Appétit, launched a petition to form a union and join a labor organizing campaign that is spreading across the country.
“It’s hard not to be motivated by that, and it’s really helped us push through some of the more difficult phases of our own union effort to see that what we’re asking for is reasonable. We’re asking for a living wage,” Chenail said. “It’s also validating to see them share a lot of the same experiences we’re going through.”
In June 2020, Business Insider published a scathing exposé of racism and toxic workplace issues at Bon Appétit. That month, America’s Test Kitchen began its own racial reckoning, announcing an “action plan” to increase diversity, hiring linguistic experts to guide pronunciation of non-English words and “frame recipe segments in ways that are culturally sensitive and not white-centric.”
Despite these efforts, Chenail says low wages continue to limit retention and diversity because only those who can afford to earn less apply for jobs.
In the two years since the action plan was announced, people of color have come to represent more than 25% of employees, according to ATK spokesman Brian Franklin.
Employees argue low salaries continue to be a problem.
At the Seaport office, leftovers from recipe testing are left in a “take home fridge,” where Cyrus says she sees a new generation of employees struggling to make ends meet in the way she was years ago.
“People are regularly relying on the take home fridge for their next meal,” Cyrus said. “It’s supposed to be a fun perk for people to enjoy new foods, not something that people need to depend on to make ends meet.”