Augusta Chipotle restaurant workers may be first in nation to unionize following health, labor concerns

·6 min read

Jun. 22—AUGUSTA — Workers at the Augusta Chipotle Mexican Grill are forming a union that could make it the first such unionized restaurant in the nation if the effort succeeds.

A majority of workers at the restaurant located at the Marketplace at Augusta signed union cards expressing their intent to join a to-be-formed new union, Chipotle United, according to Brandi McNease, one of the crew members at the restaurant and leader of efforts to unionize her fellow workers.

A letter was signed by several employees who in a show of solidarity were on hand to deliver it together to an onsite manager Wednesday morning, a copy of which was also sent to Chipotle's corporate offices. It states that a majority of the Augusta location's crew "wish to be represented by Chipotle United for the purposes of collective bargaining."

Last week workers walked out of the restaurant, forcing it to close, and expressed concerns they were frequently forced to open the restaurant when they didn't have enough workers on hand to be able to safely prepare and serve food to customers. They said employees were put at risk by having to perform tasks that required more workers than were available, and sometimes were told to falsify logs of food temperatures, required under food safety rules, because they didn't have enough time to check temperatures as many times a day as required.

They hope joining together in a union will help them force change in their restaurant where, they said, the crew members are like family to each other.

"I care about these people more than anybody else," said Laramie Rohr, whose usual job at the Augusta Chipotle is handling its online orders, about why she signed onto the effort. "I hope to improve working conditions, not have to have five people working 50, 60, 70, 80 hours a week, to have the ability to close when you need to for safety reasons. Because we don't want to serve bad food. We're proud of our food, we're proud of our workplace, we're proud of our coworkers. And hopefully with this we can continue to be proud of them and only grow that pride."

Advertisement

Chipotle currently does not have any unionized locations, an official said.

Laurie Schalow, chief corporate affairs officer for Chipotle, said in an email the company got the workers' petition and "we respect our employees' rights under the National Labor Relations Act and are committed to ensuring a fair, just and humane work environment that provides opportunities for all."

She said last week when concerns were raised by the Augusta staff the company immediately deployed additional resources such as hiring and training additional staff, retraining existing employees and providing new leadership to the restaurant.

"We think our actions in addressing the concerns raised by our crew in Augusta just last week prior to receiving notice of any petition in that location show how quickly we can and do respond to our employees when they directly notify us of their issues and concerns," Schalow said.

A joint statement from a majority of the roughly 20 workers at the Augusta Chipotle says they believe forming a union will help to combat what they called Chipotle's systematic exploitation of crew members and make it easier for them to do their jobs safely and to the best of their abilities. They said they have not had appropriately trained leadership at the restaurant and the crew has had no formal training.

Augusta is the second Chipotle location in the nation where workers are seeking to form unions, McNease said, joining efforts already underway to unionize Chipotles in New York.

Advertisement

It would also be the second food service business in Maine where employees are currently seeking to unionize, according to Sarah Bigney McCabe, organizing director for Maine AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions.

Elsewhere in Maine, Starbucks employees in Biddeford have notified the company they intend to unionize, joining a trend of food service workers unionizing across the country.

The Augusta Chipotle wasn't open Wednesday and had been closed all week, workers said, due to a lack of adequate staff, though some staff and management have been at the store training and cleaning.

McNease and other workers said they are forming their own union, Chipotle United. It won't, at least initially, be part of a larger national labor union.

McCabe said she was on hand simply to help support the Chipotle workers as they form a new union.

She said the usual process, once workers have filed a petition to form a union, would be the National Labor Relations Board would schedule a vote of workers who'd decide whether or not to form a union.

Advertisement

"Welcome to the labor movement, you guys are amazing, we are so inspired by you and excited and we have your back 10,000%," McCabe told the workers before they delivered their unionization documents at the Augusta site. "We really want you to have this voice on the job so you can have better working conditions. I appreciate what you do for feeding your community, and you deserve to be treated well."

James Forbis, a crew member who signed on to the group's letter of intent, said sometimes there are only two to four workers at the Augusta location, not nearly enough to run the restaurant which workers said requires at least seven workers. He said some managers there who are training workers haven't been trained themselves. He said he has another job and some days has walked the 45 minutes from his apartment to Chipotle only to find out the restaurant wasn't going to open that day. He said if he'd known that in advance, he could have worked a shift at his other job.

Schalow said Chipotle offers industry-leading benefits such as competitive wages, debt-free degrees, tuition reimbursement up to $5,250 a year, health benefits and quarterly bonuses to employees and, last year, employed nearly 100,000 people across North America, Canada and Europe and paid $37 million in bonuses to restaurant employees.

The group statement from workers, forwarded by McNease, said: "We're hoping that by forming this union we can work with Chipotle to achieve the goals we have in common, such as safe and healthy food, and good atmosphere, and safe and happy crew members, and all of the other things that make Chipotle different. We are here to make things better by ensuring we have the tools and the support to meet Chipotle's high standards while caring for ourselves, the crew that will come after us, and other food service workers who may see our efforts and feel empowered to stand up against the industry's toxic culture."

Related Headlines

* Augusta Chipotle workers walk out, claim unsafe conditions due to understaffing