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Fast, Casual, and Out of Control

Chipotle claims to serve “food with integrity.” How the chain treats its workers is another story.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The fast-casual burrito-slinging behemoth Chipotle was awash in Halloween-themed promotions this month. Cheap “boorritos”! TikTok contests! But no haul of spooky goodies could hide the spirit of labor revolt lurking amid the other skeletons in the company’s closet. Chipotle’s continued labor violations and piss-poor treatment of its workers—who for years have reported that working conditions at the chain are  a “nightmare”—came to a head with multiple rallies across New York City in October. Members of 32BJ SEIU, a property-services union dedicated over the better part of a decade to organizing the city’s fast-food workers, gathered to speak out against the company’s failure to heed the city’s 2017 Fair Workweek law. Chipotle’s stated commitment to “raising the bar” in matters of social responsibility apparently stops when it comes to its own employees.

A page on Chipotle’s corporate website touts its “food with integrity” tagline, adding, “With every burrito we roll or bowl we fill, we’re working to cultivate a better world.” That’s certainly not the case for their workers, nor is it all that plausible a claim for the customers, with the restaurant chain’s brutal working conditions and correspondingly lax approach to food safety oversight producing a worrisome array of public health hazards. Since 2008, the company has been at the center of twelve major food safety incidents, including a 2008 hepatitis outbreak in San Diego, a rash of E. coli and norovirus cases across the West Coast and Midwest in 2015, and a fairly exotic Clostridium perfringens outbreak in Ohio last year. 

The company’s obsessive focus on rapid delivery also directly threatens the well being of its workers. “It takes a lot of physical labor to make the food and serve it,” said Jeremy Espinal, a 20-year-old college student from the Bronx who’s been with Chipotle for nearly two years. “We are put under a lot of pressure to make quality and safe food in a fast time, but also to serve customers and give them a quality experience while still getting them down the line quick.”

Espinal has been injured on the job multiple times, and characterizes his routine at Chipotle as “hard and stressful work,” involving pronounced physical and mental strain as he and his fellow workers hustle to meet management’s sky-high expectations. My interviews with him and several other line workers for the chain depict a workplace long on manic stress and short on basic dignity and respect for workers. Not surprisingly, staff turnover is constant at the chain’s franchises, and comprehensive staff training is an afterthought. 

Employees also say that managers play favorites, and are quick to retaliate against people who stand up for themselves. Jahaira Garcia, a 21-year-old Chipotle worker from Queens, told me, “We are treated poorly. People get fired for no reason or just because a manager doesn’t like them. Managers scream at you; make you feel undervalued. There’s also a lot of favoritism, which is not good because some people get more hours than people who truly need or deserve the hours. On top of that, supervisors sexually harass women here, and everyone is scared to speak up.”

At the center of this latest bout of worker dissent at Chipotle is management’s capricious, disrespectful approach to shift scheduling. Under New York City’s 2017 Fair Workweek legislation (which covers workers regardless of immigration status), employers must give two weeks’ advance written notice of schedules, give 72 hours notice for on-call employees, and give currently employed fast-food workers priority for newly available shifts (as opposed to filling the shifts with new hires). However, Chipotle continues to flout the law, and its workers suffer as a result. This dismal track record is behind New York City’s pending suit against the chain for violating Fair Workweek; city officials are also investigating 17 Chipotle locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan for labor violations. The city is seeking more than  $1 million in penalties associated with these investigations, including restitution for the workers.

“Chipotle supervisors wreak havoc in our lives with the way they manipulate our schedules,” said Garcia, who started working at Chipotle after her mother was deported to Mexico a little over a year ago. She’s currently a double major in biology and psychology at City College, and her paychecks from working as a takeout supervisor help support her two younger sisters. Garcia was promoted from a cashier to a takeout specialist in April 2019, but has yet to receive any training for her new position. Juggling classes and a job is hard enough when companies play by the rules, but nearly impossible when they don’t.

“Sometimes, they send us home after we clock in, or call us and tell us not to bother coming in,” she said. “Supervisors would often coerce us into signing a paper saying we requested the change or sometimes forge our signatures to forms saying we requested the change. The reason they do this is because Chipotle wants to keep the cost of labor down, and supervisors’ pay is tied to their ability to maintain a certain payroll. This is not only unfair to us workers; it means we are often working shorthanded. In a workplace that is often stressful, with co-workers at varying levels of competence because of a lack adequate training, that puts those of us on shifts under tremendous pressure to produce under very trying conditions.”

Cristy Garcia, an 18-year-old student at The New School (and no relation to Jahaira), had to quit her part-time job—which she was hoping would help pay for college—when managers refused to respect her stated availability, wrote her up arbitrarily, and actively interfered with her academic schedule by scheduling her during class hours.

“I finally quit Chipotle when I was told I had to go on break the very second I clocked into work on the day I was scheduled to close,” she said. “I requested to take my break at a later time and was denied, despite the fact that I’d be on my feet for seven-plus hours. During my time there, I was made to feel like a nuisance because I had priorities other than Chipotle. When I realized Chipotle didn’t care about students, I decided it was no longer the place for me.”

Now workers are banding together to create a more accountable and humane workplace in the restaurant chain. At a recent meeting with New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams at the 32BJ office in Manhattan, they and several other workers recounted what brought them to join the campaign to organize Chipotle workers. Each person who spoke—from the young pregnant woman feeling pressure to meet quotas to the Spanish-speaking mother struggling to clock enough hours to support her children—stressed the lack of basic respect and dignity on the job. Williams chided the company, saying, “You can thrive and treat people like human beings.”

Espinal, who helped facilitate the meeting, is from a union family, and is the son of another 32BJ member. He got involved because he’s seen the benefits of union membership first-hand; he stresses that fast-food workers deserve the same benefits and security his parents had. What’s more, he suggests, the Chipotle campaign is part of a much larger, nationwide struggle to secure a measure of economic justice in a deeply unequal labor economy.

“I hope to achieve a union for not only Chipotle workers or workers in NYC, but all fast food workers nationwide,” he says. “We are at a point where the economic gap in income and wealth has left most people, especially minorities, struggling just to live. I see this campaign as the first step in giving those who have never had a true, powerful voice, just that, and the ability to make their lives better.”

Asked about the unionization effort and these workers’ accusations, Laurie Schalow, the company’s chief reputation officer, said, “Chipotle is committed to creating a safe and engaging work environment for its employees. Chipotle gives workers industry-leading benefits such as debt-free degrees, tuition reimbursement up to $5,250 per year, competitive health benefits and quarterly bonuses for all employees, including hourly crew members, up to a month’s worth of pay per year. We encourage our employees to contact us immediately with any concerns so we can respond quickly to make things right.”

Chipotle managers say that the company is doing its best to comply with the law and treat its workers ethically. But I interviewed one former Chipotle executive who says that such talk is only lip service; in reality, higher-ups in the company regard workers as little more than cheap, ready replaced production inputs. “Given the high turnover in quick service restaurants/fast food, the workers are unfortunately seen as being disposable, consciously or unconsciously,” said William Espey, who worked as Chipotle’s Creative Director from 2009 until he left the company in 2018. “From the manager’s perspective, the statistics say that everyone on their crew is going to be gone in seven or eight months, so why care? It’s tragic, this machine that we feed with our souls.”

32BJ SEIU is tightly allied with the ongoing Fight For $15 campaign, which kicked off in New York City in 2012 when more than 200 fast-food workers staged a mass walkout to demand a $15 hourly wage and a union. “Not only did New York fast food workers persevere and win $15 for all low-wage workers in New York, cities around the nation also heard their call and raised minimum wages there too for all their low-wage workers,” 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg said. “Fast food workers are saying it is time to fight and win the second part of our demand: a union for fast food workers in New York City.”

The workers are organized and motivated, the union is pouring time and resources into the campaign, and the city’s suit against Chipotle is ongoing. There are many moving parts in the Chipotle campaign, and a lot of energy around the movement, but for Jahaira Garcia, winning the union would mean more than peace of mind or a bump in her paycheck. Her dream is bigger than that. “A lot of us depend on our income from this job to take care of ourselves and our families,” she said. “Life will be different if I had a union because I will, finally, have a voice on the job. I will have power. I will be treated as a human being. I will be treated with respect.”