Chipotle Is a Nightmare Employer

Chipotle says it is raising its starting wage to $11 an hour. It’s not enough for many workers who say the company’s business model relies on understaffing and overwork, leaving them stressed and with little choice but to cut corners on food safety.

Chipotle staff serves customers at a location in South Portland. (John Patriquin / Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

A recent press release from Chipotle opens with tortured syntax. “Chipotle Increases Wages Resulting in $15 Per Hour Average Wage,” it reads, going on to claim that the company “Provides Path to Six Figure Compensation In ~3 Years” (more on that later). The fast-casual chain had to phrase the announcement this way because it is not raising its starting wage to $15, the amount fast-food workers have demanded for over a decade.

Rather, Chipotle says it will raise wages until the average across all hourly workers comes to $15. This is a meaningless metric, one that allows the income of the hourly workforce who already make more than $15 an hour — such as assistant managers, or “apprentices” in Chipotle parlance — to mask the pay of crew members who make less than $15. The company’s press release says starting wages will increase to $11 — a raise of less than a dollar per hour for the lowest-paid employees, and well below a living wage.

Chipotle says it hopes the raise will attract “talent,” and that it is seeking to hire twenty thousand workers and open two hundred locations this year. The company is not the only employer making noises about having difficulties finding enough workers willing to accept low wages and poor working conditions: McDonald’s and Tyson Foods, for example, have also said that they’ll raise some of their workers’ wages, though these raises are even more circumscribed than those at Chipotle. But it should come as no surprise that the chain is getting worried. Behind the obfuscatory press release is a company that is unravelling.

“Chipotle leadership views unions as an existential threat to its current operating model,” says Ezra — a pseudonym Jacobin has granted him so he can speak freely. Ezra, a restaurant support employee, working on the corporate side of the company, describes the chain as worried about worker organizing because it “knows it doesn’t have much ground on which to argue against unions.” That’s because Chipotle brands itself as “food with integrity.” Its stated values include “cultivating a better world” and “treating our people right.” It would be hard to reconcile this image with fighting a union drive.

The truth is that while Chipotle says it will “stand up for what’s important, even when it’s hard,” that does not apply to its treatment of workers. CFO Jack Hartung recently said it would be “very, very manageable” for the company to pay workers $15 if federally mandated to do so. He stated that “we think we’re in a much, much better position” to pay a $15 minimum than other companies. Yet Chipotle won’t make that change unless the federal government mandates it. In other words, there’s no substance to the company’s claims about doing the right thing — not that more proof of that was needed on top of its record of knowingly exposing workers to rat infestations, refusing to close stores experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, and allegedly violating labor laws in New York City some six hundred thousand times in a two-year period.

The complaint filed against Chipotle by the City of New York about those violations is the product of organizing. Workers have been speaking out about the company’s violations of the law, and these instances were documented with the assistance of SEIU Local 32BJ, a 175,000-member union that organizes with Chipotle workers. While these workers do not have a formally recognized union, nor are they close to establishing one, Chipotle employees say the company is nonetheless “terrified” of the nascent union effort in New York City.

“Instead of saying ‘union,’ they would always say, ‘the stuff going on in New York,’’ says Ezra of Chipotle leadership. “‘New York’ became a shorthand for ‘union.’ As in, ‘We’ve got a New York situation in Chicago,’” he explains.

To counter organizing efforts, Chipotle focuses on stories of upward mobility among workers, as evidenced by the press release’s emphasis on a path to a six-figure salary. The company does pay general managers who reach coveted “restaurateur” status a six-figure salary, and general managers get perks like trips to Las Vegas for company conferences. (Employees describe the aim of these gatherings as indoctrinating managers into the company culture, a demanding, insular ethos that leads some to refer to their employer as “Chi-cult-le.”)

But opportunities to reach these positions are limited: only a small proportion of store managers attain restaurateur status. Employees say English fluency is required to rise above the kitchen manager position, the company’s lowest level of management. And if one does become a restaurateur, the pressure is intense: in a documentary shown at a Chipotle All-Managers Conference, managers cry upon receiving their “R” (a patch restaurateurs would quite literally wear on their sleeves). Chipotle founder Steve Ells blamed the company’s restaurateur culture for its food safety crisis. Although changes to the program followed, employees say the mentality persists.

But not everyone can be in charge, and the drop off from a general manager’s income to that of an hourly manager can be steep. Entry-level crew members, the majority of Chipotle’s roughly 100,000-person workforce, scrape by at well below that.

“If Chipotle wants to make a real impact, they should guarantee every worker a minimum of $15 an hour, raise wages for all New York City workers by at least $2 an hour, and pay workers the $150 million they’re owed for Chipotle’s violations of the Fair Workweek Law,” says SEIU Local 32BJ president Kyle Bragg. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio echoed the sentiment at a recent rally held by SEIU 32BJ, in which the mayor said Chipotle is “cheating its workers” and pledged that the city will make the company pay. (“We don’t want your burritos. We don’t want your rice and beans. We just want you to give dignity to working people and stop this madness,” he added, pledging to boycott Chipotle and urging others to do likewise).

Bragg says that Chipotle’s announcement about raises is “so vague, and their plans so murky, that there is no real guarantee of improvements on the job for all Chipotle workers. That’s why fast-food workers need a union, and that’s why workers and allies are going to keep up the pressure on Chipotle and the rest of the fast-food industry.” Chipotle won’t raise its minimum wage to $15 until it is legally mandated to do so, and Bragg is right that workers must keep organizing regardless of the company’s tinkering around the edges, but his point about the need for a union is worth elucidating.

Chipotle, like any other corporation, only agrees to changes that affect its bottom line when it is forced to, either by the state, as with a federal minimum wage, or by workers themselves, as was the case when workers walked off the job in the Bronx and won two weeks of paid quarantine. Unions can force those changes, and for that reason, are certainly in the interest of the workforce itself. But self-interested customers have a reason to back unions too.

The pattern that emerges from the testimony of Chipotle workers across the country is that the company’s understaffing and overwork leads to pervasive violations of not only workers’ rights, but food safety standards. Workers allege that cross-contamination is frequent. Meat is not always checked for temperature, and several employees spoke of temperature logs filled with numbers invented whole cloth. One worker tells Jacobin that the only time their location observed handwashing requirements was during health inspections. (Chipotle did not respond to a request for comment on any of these allegations.)

“They would inflate the number of folks on our schedule — literally creating people that didn’t exist — to send to corporate for approval,” says one former employee. Managers are incentivized to keep labor costs down, eligible for up to a 25 percent bonus over base pay for doing so. Chipotle touts the extensive food prep that takes place in its stores as workers hand-mash guacamole, slice jalapenos and onions, and prepare meat, but given that it is unwilling to staff its locations at the level this model requires, food safety is sacrificed to keep locations running.

The company has had hepatitis, E. coli, and norovirus outbreaks in recent years, but workers say the health hazards for customer safety are only increasing. Staffing levels have hardly budged in over a decade, even as digital ordering has led to an increase in business volume and there are more menu items than ever. When locations cannot function based on what Chipotle is asking them to do, the result is as predictable as it is alarming: lax health and safety practices.

“People in the offices have been voicing concern because it’s a food safety issue,” says Ezra. “When a restaurant is short-staffed and the employees are overworked, they have no choice but to cut corners to meet corporate’s expectations. That can lead to food-safety issues.” Indeed, state and local health authorities in Colorado are currently investigating an apparent food borne illness outbreak at a Denver-area Chipotle.

For some Chipotle workers, the pandemic has only thrown the company’s hypocrisy into starker relief. Even as crew members risked their well-being during the pandemic in exchange for low wages and stress, revenue rose significantly and CEO Brian Niccol’s pay more than doubled.

That’s on top of the company’s recent, costly relocation of its headquarters, a move that was the equivalent of setting a hundred millions dollars on fire (roughly the amount New York says it owes the city’s workers for violating their rights). The story is as follows: after Niccol left his job running Taco Bell to become Chipotle’s CEO in 2018, the company broke its leases in Denver, Colorado, and New York City to relocate to Orange County, California, where Niccol lives. Niccol billed the relocation as ideal for attracting “top talent,” but the company laid off much of its existing white-collar workforce in the process and asked others to relocate to Orange County. It’s clear that the move happened because Niccol wanted it as a condition of his becoming CEO.

To Niccol’s demand that the company relocate, spending a huge sum of money and upending employees’ lives in the process, Chipotle acquiesced; to the demands of its tens of thousands of crew members for a living wage and adequate staffing, it digs in its heels. The company’s workers are quitting in droves, walking off the job, and complaining of distress and despondency to the point of checking themselves into mental health facilities. Disasters are unfolding because the federal minimum wage is not enough on which to live, and companies like Chipotle take for granted an all-but-unlimited supply of desperate people with little to no bargaining power, disorganized and subject to the whims of their employer.

That’s the rub. Chipotle is like any other employer: it wrings productivity out of workers to generate profits. While Chipotle experiments with automation, it needs people to make burritos in the front of the house and chop vegetables, prep meat, and clean up in the kitchen. It’s a labor-intensive model, and the company prefers to control the terms of employment so that it can shape workers to fit its needs.

In New York City, fast-food workers, including those at Chipotle, recently won just cause, which makes it harder for employers to arbitrarily fire workers. That’s the result of workers’ organizing efforts. It’s a big win, putting employees on firmer ground when speaking up about health and safety or defending themselves or coworkers against abuse. But workers only have those rights which they can enforce, and Chipotle employees nationwide will have to organize if they want to see changes at the company. If they don’t do so, there are more disasters to come at Chipotle, not only for workers, but for customers too.

“The value of being a Chipotle employee has disintegrated,” says Ezra, who describes corporate leaders as “utterly disconnected” from the company’s low-wage workers, who increasingly find whatever benefits the company offers are no longer worth it. “Companies like Chipotle are the ones that should be doing the right thing, but clearly, they never will, so they’re also the most susceptible to this kind of change,” he adds, bringing the conversation back to the chain’s big fear, and the key tool workers have for raising wages and improving working conditions: unions.