NEW YORK, N.Y.—Just after 6 p.m. on March 4, a small cluster of workers emerged from the front door of the Chipotle restaurant on Sixth Avenue and West 21st Street. They converged with a march of about 35 fellow fast-food workers and 32BJ SEIU organizers.
“Keep your chips, keep your guac, serving justice we won’t stop,” they chanted vigorously. “Make it fast, make it quick, cutting corners makes us sick!”
The action was one of three mini-strikes organized by 32BJ that day, protesting the Chipotle chain’s sick-leave policies. The union is demanding that Chipotle give workers the paid sick-leave days they’ve earned under city law and not fire or punish those who ask for time off. Workers say those demands are much more urgent under the looming specter of a coronavirus epidemic.
“It’s a lot more serious now. This disease is deadly,” says Carlos Hernandez, 20, one of the workers who walked out and one of 10 who filed complaints about the company’s sick-leave policies with the city Department of Consumer and Worker Protection last week. “They care about their money more than the people.”
Hernandez, a grill cook from the Bronx, spoke to LaborPress just after the store’s substitute manager came out and barked “Hey you, get back in the store now!” at him and the others who’d walked out. A 32BJ staffer blocked the man’s path, telling him, “Don’t try it.”
Workers identify two problems: Chipotle’s protocols for when sick workers can go home, such as having vomited or had diarrhea in the past few days, don’t cover many common infectious diseases, and it often requires employees to work anyway even when they meet those protocols. “Even if you got the flu or stomach pains, they’ll tell you to come in,” says Hernandez, whose complaint to the city involves being moved from the grill to washing dishes when he got sick and had “a little problem in the bathroom.”
Chipotle did not respond to questions sent by LaborPress.
The five paid sick days city law allows are not enough, workers say, particularly considering that other people are eating the food they make. Because they accrue paid time off at the rate of one hour for every 30 they work, in practice they can’t take sick days until they’ve been on the job for a couple months, says Anthony Gorostiza, 30, of Manhattan.
“I feel like if you’re sick, you’re sick, especially when you’re preparing food,” says Hernandez.
“The people at the bottom make this place run,” says Gorostiza, who works on the cash register, the grill, and food preparation.” The store’s owners, he adds, “cut corners on a lot of stuff. Things could be better if they put more effort into it.” For example, he explains, they could cross-train workers in different skills instead of hiring more part-timers, so the ones already on the job could get more hours.
Hernandez says he’s not worried about management retaliating against him, even though he’s taking care of his ailing mother and grandmother and had to delay his student-loan payments because he’s not getting enough hours or premium pay. It’s his human and constitutional right to protest, he avers.
“This is my day. I’m not going to let anyone take it,” he says. “I just want the customers to know how much we go through to get them their food. We’re people too. I hope the customers can see that and support us.”
“I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing it for my coworkers,” he told the crowd as the rally neared its end.
Then, about 45 minutes after they walked out, he, Gorostiza, and the others went back to work, stopping at a table to talk to customers.