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Chipotle Gives Sick Workers the Runaround During Global COVID-19 Pandemic

April 3, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

NEW YORK, N.Y.—The Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant chain promised last month that it would give employees “directly affected” by the COVID-19 coronavirus two weeks paid sick leave—but workers at several Manhattan outlets say they were told to take unpaid leave.

Despite ongoing protests – and a worldwide pandemic – fast food workers can’t take time off for illness.

Miguel Amigon, a father of four who works in a Chipotle near Battery Park, said he began experiencing a fever while at work on the weekend of Mar. 21. He also noticed that he’d lost his sense of smell, a distinctive symptom of COVID-19 infection. 

When he called Chipotle’s SSR hotline (Safety, Security, and Risk) for sick workers on Monday the 23rd, “I was told to take unpaid leave,” he said at a telephone press conference organized by 32BJ SEIU Apr. 2.”

 Chipotle, which uses the slogan “Cultivating a Better World,” announced in an email to customers March 25 that it was expanding its emergency-leave benefits, paying workers for the hours they were scheduled for over the next two weeks or average hours worked, whichever was greater. It also said it would pay 10% extra for hours worked between March 16 and April 12.

“At Chipotle, employees never have to choose between work and taking care of themselves,” CEO Brian Niccol said in the message. “Health and safety is our top priority and our policy has always been and will continue to be, if an employee is sick, they stay home and are welcomed back when they are symptom-free.”

“Workers report that they are not able to access this paid leave,” said 32BJ vice president Shirley Aldebol. “That’s unconscionable.”

“Countless workers still don’t know the company’s policy,” she continued. She said they were not told if they needed a positive test for the virus to qualify—extremely difficult to obtain in places like New York, where the infection is rife—or whether it would also cover those quarantined because family members were sick. 

Chipotle gives all workers 24 hours of sick leave, company communications director Erin Wolford told LaborPress, and more where required by local law. The two additional weeks, she said, are available if workers are “required to be quarantined by either public health officials or Chipotle.”

Gustavo Soler, who works in a Chipotle near New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Washington Heights, did get paid for the two weeks he was out in March, but said it was a struggle. 

Speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, he said he’d called his manager after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Mar. 17, and was told to call the SSR hotline. They told him to stay home for two weeks, and that he should ask his manager about benefits, because they had no additional information. He said the manager told him to use the sick leave he had already earned under city law, about two days. He couldn’t get through to the human-resources department. 

“I was surprised I got paid after making all these calls,” Soler said. “No one ever responded to me.”

Jeremy Espinal, who works at a Chipotle in Greenwich Village, said the biggest issue for him and his coworkers is “just how vague they are. The company hasn’t come out and told us what they’re doing.”

“Internal communication regarding sick leave has been issued to employees via email and is displayed on posters in the back of the restaurants,” Chipotle says. “Additionally, conference calls have been held for general managers and above and videos have been created providing further clarification.” 

Al Diaz-Larui, 41, who works on Sixth Avenue in Midtown, called his manager the day before his Mar. 25 shift to report that he had a 101°F fever. He said he was told to take unpaid leave after his regular sick leave was used up, and that SSR would call him. The human resources department called him several days later to say that SSR was too backed up to call him.

“I was given a runaround,” he said. He says he wasn’t told that he could apply for the extra sick leave. He returned to work Apr. 1, but doesn’t know if he’ll get paid for the time he was out. He said the human-resources department told him to wait and see if it’s on his next paycheck.

Sick leave was already an issue at Chipotle before the epidemic hit. In February, 10 workers backed by 32BJ filed complaints with the city Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, alleging that the company has a pattern of pressuring them to work while they’re sick, refusing to let them take sick days required by city law, and sometimes firing them for taking days off. In a settlement announced Feb. 26, the company agreed to rehire a worker at its East 14th Street restaurant and pay her for the three sick days she was entitled to plus $2,500 in restitution.

Several workers say a key problem is that the company gives managers bonuses for decreasing labor costs. “Guess what? Paid sick days increase labor costs,” Diaz-Larui said. “Why would anyone be surprised? It’s not fair.”

Chipotle said it has approved bonuses for the first quarter of 2020 averaging $3,700 for field leaders, $1,800 for restaurant general managers, and $650 for apprentices, but did not say whether reduced labor costs was one of the goals needed to qualify. 

“When it comes to food services, practices that are bad for the staff endanger the public,” City Councilmember Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) said. Chipotle should give workers paid time off without requiring a positive test, he added, because coronavirus testing in the city is reserved for the sickest patients, to avoid putting further strain on the overloaded medical system.

April 3, 2020

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