Luis Gustavo Paulino Ruiz was in the trash room at the Chipotle on Broadway near West 169th Street in Washington Heights in November when a rat bit his finger. The infestation was old news among the staff: as the New York Post first reported, workers say the rats had arrived during the summer, and the first case of an employee being bitten by one occurred in October.
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. That’s when Paulino Ruiz was bitten.
“I was worried about what kind of diseases I could catch,” he tells me through a translator. One of the store’s managers took him to the hospital.
Paulino Ruiz is one of four employees at the store who was bitten by the rats. Only when a rat bit one of the managers on November 23 did the store stop having workers come in to clean.
Chipotle 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. (Chipotle did not respond to requests for comment on the compensation provided to workers at the West 169th Street store, nor to questions about the many allegations from employees discussed in this story.)
“We had to find another store to work in. If you couldn’t find a store to work in, you didn’t get paid,” says Paulino Ruiz.
The store is now back open. Paulino Ruiz says he feels safer and more secure knowing that there are no more rats now, but he remains disappointed in what the saga says about how his employer sees him and his coworkers.
“I feel deceived by the company. I thought that they valued workers’ rights and safety,” he says.
The Washington Heights location isn’t the only store that is in disarray at the fast-casual chain. Employees at several locations have staged on-the-job actions to force the company to rectify what they describe as unsafe, dehumanizing working conditions. Others speak of an atmosphere of desperation in their stores amid COVID-19 outbreaks among staff while corporate refuses to close stores.
And Paulino Ruiz’s store isn’t the only Chipotle with a rat problem either.
“There are still rats,” Valeria Beras Mota tells me of her workplace, the Chipotle on West 237th Street in the Bronx.
“To my knowledge, the rat problem has been going on for two months. There have been people who have come to check but the rats are still around — one of my coworkers saw a rat last Friday,” she told me this morning. Two of her coworkers have been bitten. Despite the problem, the store continues to fulfill online orders, and the staff continues to come in to work.
Beras Mota says that her managers have talked to Chipotle corporate about the problem. She believes that it’s the higher-ups who want to keep the store open, a view echoed by workers at Chipotles across the country. Even when store managers try to look out for their workers, corporate pressures them to do otherwise.
“One of my managers told me last weekend that we had a COVID-19 exposure in the store, and she mentioned that she wasn’t supposed to tell me,” says an employee at the Chipotle on Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach, California.
Testimony from eight workers at the Hermosa Beach store confirms that it is undergoing a COVID-19 outbreak, with six workers exposed to the virus and at least two testing positive. (The employees were granted anonymity to protect them from potential retaliation for speaking out about their working conditions.)
The Hermosa Beach store — located in Los Angeles County, which is currently experiencing uncontrolled COVID-19 spread, with local ICUs near capacity — remains open to the public. Its workers say they fear for their safety. One manager at the store, in a written statement, says 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 writes. They recount a field leader, Chipotle’s term for someone who oversees several stores in a region, telling them “it was okay if I got the virus because I was young and I would recover quickly.”
“I’ve accepted the fact that Chipotle does not care if I drop dead,” says one of the Hermosa Beach Chipotle employees.
At Chipotle, Worker Mistreatment Is Standard Practice
Worker mistreatment and unsanitary conditions are nothing new for Chipotle.
The company has been at the center of several food-safety incidents in the past decade: a hepatitis outbreak in 2008, E. Coli and norovirus cases in 2015 and 2016, a norovirus outbreak in 2016, and Clostridium perfringens cases in 2018, to name just a few.
In response to these problems, Chipotle bolstered its sick leave policy and implemented third party inspections of their stores. But interviews with the company’s workers conducted by SEIU Local 32BJ and the National Consumers League suggest managers are warned before inspectors arrive at the store.
“Workers reported that managers have relaxed rule-following outside of inspection periods and tightened up adherence to food safety protocols when an audit is imminent,” reads the report, which was published in February of this year and coauthored by the two organizations.
The sick leave policy is similarly uneven. The company has been accused of violating New York City’s sick leave policy, with workers alleging that managers regularly pressure them to report to work despite being sick.
Workers have filed complaints with the New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection saying as much, as well as alleging that managers try to retaliate against workers for taking sick days, including trying to fire them.
In 2019, the city sued the company for violating its Fair Workweek Law. This is in addition to a $1.37 million fine issued against the company in Massachusetts for violating child labor laws by having employees under the age eighteen work forty-eight-hour weeks.
Some of the labor-law violations may result from the incentive structure the company has put in place for management. The report from SEIU Local 32BJ and the National Consumers League includes allegations that managers can earn up to a 25 percent bonus over their base pay for keeping labor costs low. “This program may incentivize managers to meet productivity goals by cutting corners on food safety or by violating worker protection laws,” reads the report.
The policy is merely an explicit acknowledgement of a manager’s essential role: driving down labor costs is a key part of the job at many more companies than Chipotle. But the size of the financial compensation for doing so at Chipotle almost certainly is part of the story of why the company continues to find itself at the center of unsanitary outbreaks as well as widespread allegations of worker mistreatment.
“Chipotle has shown a callous disregard for worker safety,” says Kyle Bragg, president of SEIU Local 32BJ, which organizes with Chipotle employees. “No one should have to go to work not knowing whether they’ll be bitten by a rat or exposed to COVID because of Chipotle’s failure to protect workers. These essential workers deserve better. That’s why Chipotle workers are organizing for a union with 32BJ SEIU.”
The pandemic only escalated the pressure on the company’s workers, and many of them are no longer willing to put up with it. March saw walkouts at Chipotles across New York City, as workers, occasionally assisted by SEIU Local 32BJ, used their leverage to demand improvements from the intransigent corporation.
The on-the-job collective action hasn’t let up. Workers at two New York City stores that recently staged walkouts over what they describe as unsafe health precautions tell me that the company continues to prioritize profits over people’s lives.
“They haven’t been transparent with who’s sick and sick with what” says Albert Morales, who works at the Chipotle on East 161St in the Bronx. The day he and his coworkers decided to walk off the job, management had told them there was a COVID-19 exposure at the store and that the location would close, only to abruptly reverse the decision less than an hour later. When the workers heard the store would remain open, they decided to shut it down themselves.
“We started going around telling people [on staff] that we’re going on strike because we don’t feel safe and Chipotle isn’t going to do anything unless we attack them — and the way we attack them is by attacking their profits, which means not working,” says Morales of preparations for the walkout.
“The manager came out and said, ‘Are you guys doing what I think you guys are doing?’ recounts Akosua Abankwa, who also works at the East 161th Street store.
In response to the workplace action, Chipotle closed the store for two weeks to give it a deep cleaning, and paid the workers to quarantine — an almost unheard-of concession by the company. The store is now back open, and workers say corporate’s attitude toward them is noticeably different.
“Now they see how we’re moving,” says Abankwa. “They know they have to keep it professional around us.”
Beras Mota, the Chipotle employee who works at the West 237th Street location, participated in a walkout too, on December 11. While it provided a chance for workers from other stores to connect with those at hers, the results are more mixed than at Morales and Abankwa’s location. She, like every other Chipotle worker to whom I spoke, wants a reinstatement of hazard pay, a demand the walkout did not achieve. At the start of the pandemic, the company bumped pay by 10 percent, but it rolled back the raise long ago, even as the public health crisis continues.
It’s clear that the problems at the company are not merely about one store. At Chipotle, worker mistreatment and cutting corners on health safety are standard practice. Thanks to the pandemic, workers are now terrified of what the consequences of that policy will be for them and their families.
There are now more than enough cases of wanton disregard for the people who create Chipotle’s profits to dispel any doubt. Something has to change before more people get hurt. Asked what this means for customers, one worker at the Hermosa Beach store says the answer is straightforward: “If people care about their own safety, they shouldn’t eat at Chipotle.”