NEW YORK, N.Y.—As one Chipotle worker fired after trying to take paid sick days returned to her job Feb. 26, 10 others were filing complaints that the restaurant chain violated their rights under the city’s paid-sick-leave law.
In a settlement announced by the city Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, Chipotle agreed to rehire Luisa Mendez and pay her for the three sick days she was entitled to plus $2,500 in restitution. Mendez told a small rally outside the restaurant, at 117 East 14th Street near Union Square, that she had been sacked after her bosses told her she was taking too many days off. She said she’d been taking care of her ailing father and pregnant daughter, and that she’d been unable to use the company’s app for requesting paid sick days.
“That is not legal. We want to send a very strong message to employers,” DCWP Commissioner Lorelei Salas said. “We want workers to know that we have their back.”
Workers who filed the new complaints, aided by 32BJ SEIU, said the company has a pattern of pressuring them to work while they’re sick, refusing to let them take sick days, and sometimes firing them for taking days off.
Nigeria Brown, 20, of the Bronx, said she had been fired in January after an October incident where she’d gotten food poisoning and vomited during a lunch-hour shift. “I wasn’t the only one. It was a few other people,” she told LaborPress after the rally. “The day before, they were selling expired chicken, and they weren’t telling us.”
She says her manager sent her home, saying she’d violated store policy. “I felt so weak for the whole weekend,” she adds.
Like Mendez, she couldn’t figure out how to use the app to request paid sick days, and when she did, it gave her only one of the three days off she’d earned. She says she advised coworkers to file complaints too.
Carlos Hernandez, 20, of the Bronx, said his complaint was prompted by his manager telling him that he couldn’t go home when he got diarrhea during a shift. Company policy is that employees can’t work if they’ve had nausea, fever, or diarrhea in the last three days, he says, but he was just told to stop working on the grill and either wash dishes in the back or go up front to the cash register.
“I’m trying not to make anyone sick,” he says. “Even if I’m not touching the food, I shouldn’t be there.”
“You would think that an employer who is serving fresh food would want its employees to stay home when they’re sick,” said 32BJ Secretary-Treasurer Larry Engelstein.
“Chipotle’s policy is to fully comply with the Sick and Safe Leave Act, and we communicate to all employees how they can properly request sick time,” Laurie Schalow, the company’s chief corporate reputation officer, said in a statement to LaborPress. “We encourage our employees to contact us immediately, including through an anonymous 800 number, with any concerns so we can investigate and respond quickly to address any issues.”
In Mendez’s case, she added, “we reviewed the situation and determined that reinstatement of this employee was appropriate. While we are always looking for ways to improve our processes and ensure compliance with all laws, we consider this matter successfully resolved.”
DCWP filed a lawsuit against five Chipotle restaurants in Brooklyn last September, charging them with “widespread violations” of the city’s Fair Workweek Law, which requires fast-food and retail businesses to give workers predictable schedules, and is investigating several others.
“In the midst of this, we’re hearing about paid sick-leave violations,” Salas told LaborPress. “It’s very concerning about the workers being required to work while sick.” DCWPfast-tracked its investigation of Mendez’s case so she wouldn’t have to wait months to see if she would get her job back.
A report released earlier this month by 32BJ and the National Consumers League said that Chipotle’s business model of using fresh ingredients instead of frozen or processed food makes it more vulnerable to food-borne illnesses, as it requires more care in preparing and cooking food. That risk, it added, is increased by the company’s labor policies. Managers can get bonuses for minimizing labor costs, which could create incentives for “cutting corners on food safety or by violating worker protection laws.”
The company generally offers workers only three paid sick days a year, the report added. While New York City’s law requires it to let workers earn up to five days, “a single illness can use up a worker’s allotment of paid sick days and create an incentive for the rest of the year to secretly work sick to avoid losing needed pay.”
“Courage can be contagious,” City Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) told the rally. In the last seven years, he said, workers in the city have won laws entitling them to a $15-an-hour minimum wage, two weeks notice of their schedules, and paid sick leave—passed over then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto in 2013. The next step, he said, is a law prohibiting employers from firing fast-food workers without a good reason.
“I was legit sick. It’s not right,” says Brown. “We’re human. It’s not right that you can’t take time off for a family emergency. I think I need to get into activism.”