NYC Chipotle Employees Protest Unsafe Working Conditions

Brendan Krisel

MIDTOWN MANHATTAN, NY — Workers at New York City Chipotle restaurants held a socially-distant protest in front of the chain's Empire State Building location Thursday, holding signs telling the fast food chain to "respect essential workers" and leading chants against the company's "poverty wages."

Protesters stood at least six feet apart from each other during the protest and spoke about unsafe work environments where managers failed to inform workers that their colleagues tested positive for the new coronavirus and neglected to conduct deep cleans at restaurants or properly enforce mandates to wear face masks. Thursday's protest was organized by the labor union 32BJ SEIU, which is currently organizing a fast food workers union in New York City.

Workers at three Chipotle stores in Manhattan also filed an Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaint against the company Thursday, which was acquired by Patch. The workers demanded immediate site inspections by OSHA at Chipotle locations at 680 Sixth Ave., 2 Broadway and 350 Fifth Ave. (the Empire State Building location).

Carlos Hernandez, 21, told Patch that he was working at Chipotle's 680 Sixth Ave. store when management suddenly closed the location in early April and transferred staff to nearby restaurants. Management did not tell workers that the store was being closed because an employee tested positive for the new coronavirus, Hernandez said.

Hernandez learned about his coworker's diagnosis in a group chat with store workers, he told Patch. Hernandez shared one shift with the coworker who tested positive, but said he has not felt any symptoms of the deadly virus.

"I was nervous of getting it because I have a sick mom at home," the 21-year-old Chipotle employee said. "I can't afford to get it, because if I get it and I give it to my mom she would most likely die."

On April 7, Hernandez decided to take an unpaid leave of absence from the company and didn't file for paid sick leave because he heard of workers being fired for attempting to be paid while staying home. He hopes that Chipotle will take efforts to better protect workers who are "risking their lives" to show up at work by being honest when colleagues fall ill, installing more protective equipment such as sneeze guards in restaurants and implementing 50% hazard pay. Hernandez decided to sign the OSHA complaint at the risk of retaliation from the company because he feels Chipotle takes its workers for granted.

"Chipotle needs to learn it's not really all about them, it's about the workers," Hernandez said. "We're the ones that make the food, we make the money for the store so that the business can keep running — even before this whole coronavirus they weren't really treating their workers like their priority."

Miguel Amigon, who has worked at Chipotle's 2 Broadway location since November, said that communication between management and workers needs improvement. Amigon took 14 days off from work after experiencing coronavirus symptoms — a fever and loss of taste and smell — but when he returned to work he found out that nobody had told his coworkers the reason for his absence, he told Patch. A few days before Amigon began to feel symptoms a coworker told him that his sister was diagnosed with the virus.

After returning to work, Amigon's coworkers told him that many of the store's employees felt symptoms but were unaware that they could take up to 14 days of sick leave. Amigon only discovered he could take time off when speaking with a nurse hotline set up by Chipotle.

"The managers never told me that I could take 14 days off. I think they don't want people to do that, I don't know, I don't know," Amigon, who works at Chipotle three days per week, told Patch. "For me my main concern is communication."

Amigon was also responsible for supplying his own face mask when he returned to work. Chipotle didn't start distributing masks, which employees are told to wash and reuse, until the middle of April, Amigon said.

In addition to filing the OSHA complaint, 32BJ SEIU is also collecting signatures from Chipotle workers on a petition that demands company-wide worker protections. Some of the demands include: Insurance that workers won't lose income due to store closures and hour cuts, hazard pay increases totaling 50% of hourly wages, employer-paid health insurance and reforms to a manager bonus program that "incentivizes worker abuse, food safety corner cutting, and violations of Chipotle’s own policies."

In response to the OSHA complaint, a Chitpole spokesperson said "health and safety of our employees and guests is our top priority" in a statement and cited "heightened measures" to sanitize restaurants and encourage social distancing among employees and customers.

"In total, we’ve paid out nearly $9M in bonuses to our restaurant employees so far this year. We have also expanded our emergency leave benefits to accommodate those directly affected by COVID-19. These individuals may receive pay equal to their upcoming 2-week schedule or average hours worked, whichever is greater," Marissa Andrada, Chipotle's Chief People Officer, said in a statement.

This article originally appeared on the Midtown-Hell's Kitchen Patch