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Wake-Up Call

Chipotle gets grilled


With sincere corporate modesty and prodigious gall, Chipotle Mexican Grill proclaims its mission to "cultivate a better world" and affirms it "is more concerned about creating lasting connections with the world rather than simply concentrating on making profits to grow itself.”

That's a mouthful. Take it with 25 million grains of salt. The only connection many of their customers have noticed is between the swallowing of Chipotle food and a post-haste rush to the toilet to open their mouths once more. It's much easier to cook up an appetizing mission statement than it is to deliver a burrito free of virulent norovirus bacteria.

It's been two years since Chipotle paid a $25 million criminal fine for sickening over 1,100 people nationwide in 2015-2018. It was more than garden-variety, stomach-churning  nausea.

According to a Department of Justice press release, the penalty was "the largest fine ever imposed in a food safety case.” It involved the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigation.

The FDA's commissioner, Stephen Hahn M.D., does not want the lesson to be forgotten, warning his agency " will hold food companies accountable when they endanger the public's health.”

A pathogen associated with food having been spoiled by unsuitable storage temperatures practically martyred around 647 diners at a single Chipotle restaurant four years ago. And when employees got sick on the job, their supervisors apparently preferred they retch on the job than recuperate at home, because they were ordered to continue to serve their customers. This was not an isolated incident.

Chipotle is at least as likely to spread pathogens as it is its stated commitment to global environmental sustainability. Prosecutors cited an occasion when several members of the Boston College basketball team fell ill after consuming a catered order that had been packaged by an employee shortly after his boss refused to let him leave after he threw up on the premises.

Spasms of cramps and diarrhea won't cut it as a medical excuse, it seems. Chipotle took out newspaper ads to apologize for the public relations nightmare that its practices generated. The spill of their show of regret was almost too much to mop up.

Federal prosecutors made a "deferred prosecution agreement" with Chipotle that spares them the bother of conviction, provided they fork over a $25 million fine and maintain the trappings of its food safety program, such as remembering to test raw ingredients and asking employees to keep their hands off the food. That beats being found guilty on two counts of violating the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

This settlement was a win/win/win for Chipotle, the government and hopefully the customer.  Time and maybe test tubes will tell.

But Chipotle's self-inflicted woes don't all fall under federal jurisdiction. They're in a different kind of trouble right here in New York City and it's still breaking news. This time it's not about poisoned food. It's about poisonous practices.

Over almost five years, Chipotle violated worker protection laws, such as those covering scheduling and sick leave, and has submitted to a settlement that may exceed $20 million, the largest of its kind on record, with the city. Approximately 13,000 workers are affected.

Chipotle's dirty laundry list includes withholding premium pay, uncompensated forced overtime, taking liberties with scheduling requirement including but not limited to timely notification, non-compliance with rules of priority privilege die current employees, and copious additional breaches of the Fair Workweek Law and Paid Safe and Sick Leave Law.

According to City Hall's press office, there have been thousands of complaints and over 2,337 closed investigations, totaling over $16.8 million in penalties to almost 45,000 workers, not counting the Chipotle case. The applicable rules are detailed and specific, but they are unambiguously spelled out and employers, including Chipotle, are bound by them.

As reported in The Chief, food-service establishment permits could be suspended and licenses forfeited in the event of persistent major violations. City Council Members Carmen De La Rosa and Marjorie Velázquez have authored two pending bills that would sharpen the enforcement teeth of the Fair Workweek Law

Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union was the plaintiff and with brilliant activism, spearheaded the investigation into Chipotle. Their triumph will extend beyond Chipotle to benefit other fast food employees also, most of whom are minority workers, whose average pay is barely double the federal poverty level and who have historically tended to be targeted for exploitation.

There are times when legal sanctions are insufficient coercion. At least one Chipotle restaurant, not in New York, reportedly closed rather than yield to expectations of having a more productive relationship with its human widgets.

Cutting shifts to six hours a week and other documented shenanigans of fast-food establishments has spawned almost 600,000 alerts. Although Chipotle is the focus of this commentary, some of its unnamed competitors might be co-lead offenders.

"We're pleased to resolve these issues,” Chipotle assured us in the wake of their settlement with the city. That's like in a scripted professional wrestling match when the villain makes an overture of reconciliation exactly when he's vulnerable.

On their website, Chipotle advertises tuition coverage and other educational benefits for its employees.And they're currently offering free meals to 2,000 New York teachers and their families among those who left comments on Chipotle's Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. They are also providing materials and supplies to students through the Kids In Need Foundation.

They aspire to be a socially responsible company that supports sustainability by diverting 51 percent of their waste through composting, recycling and waste-to-energy programs.  

But what about the day-to-day tribulations of their working stiffs?

"Aw, they can take it. Don't overprotect them.”  That's child-rearing advice from believers in toughening kids in order to make them resilient and self-reliant so they can discover for themselves the peace that comes from accepting one's station in society until such time as their ambition may eventually afford them some independence and stability as adults, perhaps before it's too late.

That patronizing view is shared  not only by fast-food bistros, but by a large segment of the general population to understand, or perhaps justify, low pay and oppressive working conditions. They inaccurately think that most employees are super-fit youth with inexhaustible stamina, who live with parents, who attend to all their debts and worldly needs, who took an entry-level temporary menial job on a lark or a dare, and easily quit at any time without consequences.

There's a hamburger joint near me. Call it Burger Monarch. It's heavily trafficked. I've been there weekdays, weekends, holidays, all hours. The workers never stand still. No pause. Perpetual motion. No faking this job. These are the hardest workers anywhere.

The Chipotle story is much bigger than the sum of its settlements. It has ramifications beyond the fast-food industry. SEIU 32BJ deserves an ovation for catching the ball, running with it, and scoring.

Unions play fair ball. Corporations play hard ball. If that was made to be, it is labor's duty to re-conceive destiny.


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