New report warns Chipotle’s labor practices could lead to food safety disasters

According to dozens of New York-area Chipotle employees, the chain’s labor practices involve cutting a lot of corners.

A new report drawing from interviews with 47 Chipotle employees in the New York City area alleges that the company’s food safety practices put workers and eaters at risk. The report, released Thursday by the National Consumers League and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, alleges that store management is warned of food safety inspections; that managers are incentivized to cut corners through the company’s bonus system; and that employees are implicitly encouraged to work when they’re sick. Those problems, the report argues, put customers at risk of contracting foodborne illnesses. 

“It is another example of the close links between working conditions and food safety. And I think that’s a disturbing connection,” says Nick Freudenberg, director of the Urban Food Policy Institute at the City University of New York. Freudenberg viewed a copy of the final report prior to publication and commented on it in a press call but was not involved in the research process. 

Fast-casual chains like Chipotle present special food safety challenges: They’re moving huge amounts of food at an extremely fast pace, while also committing to using fresh ingredients in their meals. Companies like McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A ship frozen, pre-cooked burgers and chicken to their franchises, but Chipotle employees cook meat and chop vegetables in stores. The promise of fresh food, served fast, at a relatively low price point has proved popular with consumers. But it also means Chipotle has inherited some of the worst labor practices from the fast food world—unpredictable schedules, few sick days, and high turnover rates. The result is the potentially dangerous combination of a high-risk food supply and a stressed-out workforce. 

Freudenberg says the food safety concerns at Chipotle fall into two main buckets. First, there’s the potential issue of pathogens spread through contaminated ingredients. Undercooked meat, for instance, can transmit E. coli. The new report released includes one anecdote in which a new, rushed cook failed to fully cook chicken before it was served. Had the customers not noticed the problem, they might have been put at risk. This type of anecdote isn’t too far afield from recent, broader allegations of labor issues at Chipotle: In January, the company was fined $1.37 million for child labor violations after managers scheduled teenagers to work more than 48 hours per week. 

In response to these issues, Chipotle implemented third-party restaurant inspections and strengthened its sick leave policy.

Second, sick workers can spread diseases. If a line cook with a cold sneezes on a tortilla, the resulting meal may sicken a customer. 

Chipotle has had problems with both areas of concern. In 2015 and 2016, two separate E. coli outbreaks originating at the restaurant chain sickened 60 people. And in 2016, hundreds were sickened in a human-transmitted norovirus outbreak linked to the chain. 

In response to these issues, Chipotle made some changes in its operations. Among other things, it implemented third-party restaurant inspections and strengthened its sick leave policy.

But the new report indicates that some of the old problems may still haunt the chain. “I think the report did a good job of drawing a plausible causal chain between management practices and the food safety plan. And that’s what I found disturbing,” Freudenberg says.

Workers interviewed for the report said general managers seemed to know when inspections would occur, meaning they’d have time to clean their stores and make sure employees were on high alert. When managers anticipated an inspection, one anonymous worker said, they would enforce rules like regular hand-washing, washing the lettuce machine every day, and keeping cell phones out of the kitchen. The rest of the time, those rules would fall by the wayside. “The other week my manager told us to watch out for an investigator wearing a blue shirt and khakis who has just left a nearby Chipotle,” said an employee identified in the report as Worker 37. 

Perhaps the report’s most significant finding is that the bonus system for managers “incentivizes cutting corners.”

As part of the 2016 food safety enhancements, Chipotle announced a paid sick leave policy. In New York City, which has its own sick leave policy, the company has been accused of violating the city’s laws. Chipotle now offers three days per year of paid sick leave. However, employees interviewed for the study said they were sometimes encouraged to come to work even after telling their managers they were sick. The company also made headlines in December after it was reported that the company asks that employees verify that they’re really sick, not just hungover. (Hangovers do not pose immediate food safety threats to customers.)

Perhaps the report’s most significant finding is that the bonus system for managers “incentivizes cutting corners.” Managers can earn up to 25 percent above their base pay if they meet certain performance standards. That can mean they work hard to keep labor, food, and equipment costs low. Employees said this policy has led to intentional understaffing at times, which can in turn lead to additional productivity pressure on existing staffers, which can lead to food safety slip-ups.

In response to a request for comment, a Chipotle representative said all employees—not just managers—are eligible for a quarterly bonus. “We are proud of our industry-leading food safety practices and we are committed to a culture of food safety in our restaurants where employees are supported and heard,” said Laurie Schalow, Chief Corporate Reputation Officer, in an email.  “Chipotle’s engaged and hard-working employees are what makes us great, and we encourage our employees to contact us immediately, including through an anonymous 800 number, with any concerns so we can investigate and respond quickly to make things right.”

Despite the potential safety concerns outlined in the report, Chipotle profits rose in the fourth quarter of 2019, climbing to $72.4 million.

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H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter.