Rat bites, overwork, Covid-19: Chipotle's exploitation of workers through years leaves a bad taste in the mouth
Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc was born of “the radical belief that there is a connection between how food is raised and prepared, and how it tastes,” the American chain of fast-casual restaurants claims on its website. “It may be the hard way to do things, but it’s the right way,” it adds. However, turns out the right way is not always on the list of priorities for the food brand. At least when it comes to its workers.
Last week, on May 10, the company announced that it was increasing restaurant wages resulting in a $15 average hourly wage by the end of June. The wage increases the company announced would result in hourly starting wages ranging from $11 to $18. "Chipotle is committed to providing industry-leading benefits and accelerated growth opportunities," said Marissa Andrada, Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and People Officer at Chipotle. However, there is a darker truth behind this.
The US Department of Labor states that the federal minimum wage for covered nonexempt employees is $7.25 per hour. So, on paper, Chipotle seems like a good employer. However, behind the rosy pictures painted in press releases and the company’s website, a different reality exists. Late last month, New York City sued the fast-food giant over what the city says are hundreds of thousands of violations of a fair scheduling law at several dozen stores. The lawsuit claims that workers are owed over $150 million in relief for the violations, and financial penalties could far exceed that amount.
The suit cites violations of the Fair Workweek Law, which was enacted in 2017 to make fast food workers’ schedules more predictable and less subject to last-minute changes. The violations include changing employees’ schedules without sufficient notice or extra pay, requiring employees to work consecutive shifts without sufficient time off or extra pay and failure to offer workers additional shifts before hiring new employees to fill them.
The company also violated the city’s paid sick leave law, which was enacted in 2014 and mandated up to 40 hours of paid leave per year and was revised to 56 hours beginning January 2020 for larger employers). Chipotle allegedly illegally denied requests for time off, required workers to find their own replacements, or did not pay workers for the time they took.
The Department of Consumer and Worker Protection at the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings said that while Chipotle had made some attempt to comply with the law since 2019 (when it first filed a complaint), violations were continuing. Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement, “Chipotle’s flagrant disregard for our laws and for their employees is unacceptable. Workers deserve reliable schedules and we will do everything in our power to hold them accountable.”
Teodora Flores, a 52-year-old who has worked at Chipotle at the Empire State Building since February 2018 said that when she first began working at Chipotle, she did not know about the provisions in the Fair Workweek Law. “At times, I would only see one schedule up, so that’d be only one week in advance,” said Flores. “They would change the schedule constantly. I didn’t even realize that they were violating all these laws.”
She also said that she often worked 40 hours a week when she started at the store in February 2018, but that her hours gradually fell after a new manager took over several months later. She said she worked about 21 hours a week for much of 2020, and that the store was hiring new workers for a few months during this time.
But this too is only one part of the problem at Chipotle. In January 2020, Chipotle was fined nearly $1.4 million over accusations that it routinely violated Massachusetts child labor laws, with the authorities estimating more than 13,000 violations from 2015 to 2019. Authorities examined the records of six Chipotle locations across the state, finding that the chain regularly let dozens of 16- and 17-year-old employees work more than nine hours per day and more than 48 hours per week, in violation of state law.
In November 2020, an investigative report found that when a Chipotle outlet in New York had a rat infestation, the store stayed open for a month after that first incident, and when it closed, the company scheduled the employees to continue coming in to clean as extermination was ongoing. Four employees at the store were bitten by rats. But only when a rat bit one of the managers on November 23 did the store stop having workers come in to clean.
Chipotle reportedly offered to pay any medical costs for the workers who were bitten by rats. But the company did not offer any additional compensation, nor did it look after the store’s employees when the location was closed for cleaning and extermination. “We had to find another store to work in. If you couldn’t find a store to work in, you didn’t get paid,” and Luis Paulino Ruiz, an employee at the store, told Jacobin magazine. “I feel deceived by the company. I thought that they valued workers’ rights and safety.”
The same report claimed that when at the Chipotle on Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach, California managers were reportedly told to not inform the employees about a Covid-19 outbreak. Six workers there were exposed to the virus and at least two tested positive. Workers there said that they feared for their safety. One manager at the store, in a written statement, said the people in management “have failed.”
“They have fed their managers false information. They are telling them not to warn people of exposure. My manager is telling people that they can still work if they’ve been exposed to coronavirus,” the manager said. “I’ve accepted the fact that Chipotle does not care if I drop dead,” one of the Hermosa Beach Chipotle employees told Jacobin magazine.
The Chipotle careers page on the website boasts of its attempts to foster “a culture of well-being for our employees and the environment.” But for the people working there, these promises and claims and brags ring hollow. People across the country (and the world) enjoy and relish Chipotle’s food as their go-to-savory and spicy snacks. But how the company treats its employees should leave every patron with a bad taste in their mouth.