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Chipotle Is a Criminal Enterprise Built on Exploitation

Chipotle’s contempt for the lives of its workers is appalling, even by fast-food standards. But there’s finally some good news: New York City is suing the fast-casual chain for nearly half a billion dollars, for 600,000 separate violations of workers’ rights.

Chipotle restaurant workers on April 27, 2015 in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

New York City says Chipotle owes workers $150 million in back pay for hundreds of thousands of violations of the city’s Fair Workweek Law, which was enacted in 2017 to make fast-food workers’ schedules more predictable and less subject to last-minute changes. Each violation of the law is subject to a $500 penalty, meaning that Chipotle is additionally on the hook for $300 million in civil penalties.

The complaint, filed by the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection at the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings on April 28, covers the period from when the Fair Workweek Law went into effect in November 2017, to December 2019, when the city filed an initial suit over violations. The recent complaint says that while the fast-casual chain “made some efforts to come into compliance beginning in September 2019, it remains out of compliance in significant ways.”

“The city is filing this lawsuit so that our lives change, and our treatment at these jobs changes,” says Teodora Flores, through a translator. Flores has worked at the 350 5th Avenue Chipotle since February 2018. She says that when she first began working at Chipotle, she did not know about the provisions in the Fair Workweek Law. These include workers’ right to know their schedule two weeks in advance, with companies mandated to pay workers a premium if they adjust schedules in that two-week period. A worker also cannot be scheduled for “clopening” — working a closing shift one day and an opening shift the next — without that worker’s written consent and a $100 pay premium.

“At times, I would only see one schedule up, so that’d be only one week in advance,” says Flores. “They would change the schedule constantly. I didn’t even realize that they were violating all these laws.”

Flores says these violations at her store only changed after she spoke at a rally of fast-food workers in New York in conjunction with SEIU Local 32BJ, which organizes with Chipotle workers. After that, management “started doing things a little differently at my store,” she says.

Chipotle won’t follow labor laws unless workers force them to do so. There’s no excuse for believing Chipotle’s denials on this subject (the company called the city’s complaint a “dramatic overreach” from which Chipotle vows to “vigorously defend itself”). The complaint lists 599,693 violations — in one city, in a two-year period. That’s an enormous number. Chipotle’s slogan might be “food with integrity,” but its business model is about dishonesty, disrespect, and downright endangerment of workers.

This has long been obvious. Massachusetts fined Chipotle $1.4 million last year for routinely violating the state’s child labor laws. And then there’s what workers have endured during the pandemic. Locations remained open even as COVID-19 outbreaks spread throughout stores, with the company refusing to close them for cleaning and to allow employees to quarantine. (After workers at one store spoke to Jacobin about an ongoing outbreak, they say Chipotle began searching for the source of the leak, rather than addressing the issue by closing the store.)

The chain also refused to close stores with rat infestations. As one New York City–based Chipotle worker told Jacobin last year, he was bitten by a rat while cleaning a store that had a well-established rat problem. Chipotle knew about the infestation — four workers at the store had been bitten by rats — but it only stopped having them come in to clean after one of the store’s managers was bitten.

It’s no surprise that a company which so disdains its workers and pays lax attention to laws has had so many recent food-safety incidents: hepatitis in 2008, E. coli and norovirus in 2015 and 2016, and Clostridium perfringens in 2018. That’s what follows from a single-minded drive to reduce labor costs. The company cannot countenance giving workers room to breathe, and as such, it shuts them up when they try to raise the alarm about health and safety conditions. The “fast” in the chain’s “fast casual” designation is about driving workers hard, labor laws and health codes be damned.

“The job’s stress really comes from how they treat you,” says Flores. “The company will say you need to smile and be nice to customers, but right behind you, on top of you, there’s a manager screaming, ‘Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up and finish. Why aren’t you working faster?’ And then, when that stresses you out, they say, “You’re not friendly enough. You can’t be working with that face.’” Flores worked through the pandemic and says she got sick — not of COVID-19, but from how nervous her job made her.

Luisa Mendez, who works at the Chipotle on E. 14th Street, in Union Square, was fired in 2019 for getting sick. She’d taken a day off to care for her sick dad and daughter, and when she, too, got sick, she took another day off.

“They said, ‘You get sick too often, and you’re doing damage to the company.’ They fired me for that,” she says through a translator. She says it took months of fighting alongside 32BJ to get her job back.

The company’s violations of New York’s 2014 sick-leave law are part of the complaint. The city says that “Chipotle routinely denied employees’ requests to use sick time, illegally required employees to find a replacement worker, or took disciplinary action against them for using sick time.” It states that the company only allowed workers twenty-four hours of sick leave, rather than the legally mandated forty hours, and did not allow workers to use these hours to care for family members, another violation of the law.

The city says that “each of the estimated 6,500 fast food employees who worked for Chipotle in New York City during this period experienced at least one violation, on average 3.4 per week.” It estimates that each worker is owed around $23,000 from the company. As the complaint puts it, Chipotle’s actions are “systemic failures to comply with the law.”

Systemic is right. Managers at any company are tasked with reducing labor costs, but Chipotle’s policies are particularly extreme. 32BJ and the National Consumers League found that Chipotle managers can earn up to a 25 percent bonus over their base pay for keeping down labor costs. “This program may incentivize managers to meet productivity goals by cutting corners on food safety or by violating worker protection laws,” reads the organizations’ report.

“Chipotle is a multibillion-dollar company with one of the highest-paid CEOs on the planet, but it still pays most of its workers across the country less than $15 an hour,” says 32BJ president Kyle Bragg. Indeed, Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol’s pay more than doubled in 2020, making him the country’s twelfth-highest-paid CEO. “From violating the Fair Workweek Law, to failing to inform workers of COVID exposure, to failing to protect workers from being bitten by rats — Chipotle has failed to prioritize worker rights or safety,” adds Bragg.

New York City’s complaint against Chipotle is a long time coming, and workers deserve every penny it might get for them. Chipotle has shown it is willing to cut corners even after attracting the attention of authorities. It will continue to drive workers impossibly, illegally hard until those workers make it stop through an organizing strategy that includes complaints like this one and shop floor action.

Such action has had some successes at New York City Chipotles. Last year, workers at the E. 161st Street store in the Bronx walked off the job when Chipotle refused to close their location, which was experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak. As Albert Morales, one of the store’s workers, told Jacobin at the time, they realized that “Chipotle isn’t going to do anything unless we attack them — and the way we attack them is by attacking their profits.” The company responded by closing the store for two weeks for cleaning and paid the workers to quarantine, a remarkable concession.

Chipotle, like every company, lives and dies by the bottom line. That means the financial penalties in the city’s suit will get the company’s attention. It also means that workers know where to focus their attention if they hope to win dignity and safety on the job from an employer that won’t even respect their legally protected rights.