“Borderline sweatshop conditions.” That’s how a group of Chipotle Mexican Grill employees, including several managers, described their working conditions before walking off the job last week at a Penn State restaurant location, causing it to close for several hours. The story, and images of the note the employees posted on the door explaining why “[a]lmost the entire management and crew…resigned,” has since gone viral. Good. When I heard about the walkout, I could relate: I also worked at Chipotle, and my working conditions were equally dreadful. People should know.
Between 2012 and 2013, I worked at a Chipotle restaurant in Torrance, CA. I had hoped to be hired as a cashier, but there was only one person fast enough to work the register during the busy lunch shift, so the position was not to be mine. This speed – what Chipotle calls “throughput” – is well-known: show up at lunchtime, and even in a line snaking all the way to the door, you’ll be out, burrito in hand, in just a few minutes. But the demand to work fast puts enormous pressure on workers, creating the kinds of conditions that can compel someone to walk out on the job.
I started working in “prep” – mostly, chopping lettuce, onions, peppers, and other vegetables by hand. I was surprised, as I had no knife skills and did not receive any such training. Chipotle uses very few machines, and so its workers must become machines ourselves. But the amount of chopping required is simply too much to be done by hand: the entire time I was working in prep (about a month-and-a-half), I could not extend my fingers. My hand was swollen, and it hurt a lot – except for when I would wake up in the morning, when it would be numb. When I complained, I was told not to work so fast; but, whenever I slowed my pace, I was reprimanded for not keeping up with demand. What’s worse: I didn’t have healthcare. Though I asked repeatedly for the paperwork I needed in order to apply, I didn’t receive it for months after I was hired. At less than $10 per hour and working part-time (Chipotle ostensibly offered healthcare to part-time workers), seeing a doctor for my hand was simply too expensive.
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Later, I was a dishwasher. Confronted with a huge – and growing – pile of pots and pans to wash by hand, I would be told I had only 30 minutes to finish. But I’d have needed a good hour to get them clean. Likewise, when I was tasked with cleaning the bathroom at the end of the day, I was expected to do it in 15 minutes, though there was no way to do it right in such a short amount of time. The constant pressure to work fast causes employees to cut corners, even while we are working double- and triple-time just to keep up with Chipotle’s expected pace. And word is, the company is continually working to make its service even faster.
When the lunch- and dinner-time rushes die down, employees have the opposite problem: workers were often sent home before the end of our scheduled shift, and not paid for the hours they missed.
Chipotle is getting richer and richer and richer off of a story it sells about what a great company it is, vowing to “respect” animals, people, and the environment. But time and again the company has been shown not to live up to the story that is making it billions. From its claims about animal welfare, to its resistance to farmworker demands to receive a single penny more per pound of tomatoes (after it was shamed by the farmworkers’ campaign, Chipotle capitulated), to exaggerated claims about its environmental stewardship (in the year I worked there, I hardly ever saw anything that was local or organic), Chipotle has been shown repeatedly failing to live up to its own hyperbole.
And, yet, the company continues to rake in billions selling its story, simply because it has convinced the public, through savvy “values” marketing, that it is a better company than its competitors. But the point is not whether the multi-billion dollar company is marginally better than other corporations (which, in my experience, it is not); it is that Chipotle fails so miserably to live up to its own claims – to the detriment of workers, animals, the environment, and, ultimately, efforts to make real change that lose steam when Chipotle convinces consumers that a better world is just one burrito purchase away. I understand why those Chipotle workers at Penn State walked off the job. It’s because, ultimately, Chipotle Mexican Grill’s most important value is profit, even at the cost of people and planet.