Chipotle fires Latinos

ICE bears down and the fast-food chain reacts

The Chipotle restaurant chain launched a wave of mass firings of Latino workers at its Minnesota restaurants over the past two weeks, with many workers summarily given the boot at the end of their shifts.

The firings appear to be related to an I-9 audit or "desktop raid" conducted by the Immigration and Customs Service looking for undocumented immigrants.

When news of the firings first surfaced two weeks ago, advocates thought that about 50 people had lost their jobs. But the firings have continued, and the Minnesota Immigration Rights Action Committee now estimates that at least 80 and as many as 100 workers have been fired from Chipotle restaurants across Minnesota and Wisconsin.

A partial count shows the firings touched a wide swath of the chain's Minnesota locations: 14 workers have been fired at the Grand Avenue branch in St. Paul; six at the Seven Corners branch; seven at the Skyway branch; 11 in Richfield; seven in Golden Valley; two in Stillwater; and one in Hudson.

That number could still grow, as Latino workers in several locations say they are being asked to train workers they suspect will become their replacements.

The Denver-based chain has cultivated a socially conscious brand image, touting its organic ingredients and naturally raised beef. It opened its first Minneapolis restaurant in 1999, and now has more than 1,000 locations. Unlike many similar chains, Chipotle restaurants are all centrally owned, not franchised.

About 20 of the fired workers gathered at the Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis last week to discuss their options. Most were leery of speaking to the press, but two workers recently fired from the Lake Calhoun location agreed to tell their stories using pseudonyms and speaking through a translator.

Juan started at Chipotle five years ago, working full-time for $7.50 an hour. When he was fired, he was making $9.45. Maria said she started at $7 an hour six years ago, and was making $9.50 when she was canned. She says she was also on the list for a $400 Christmas bonus.

Juan and Maria, who are both originally from the state of Morelos in Mexico, believe that Chipotle understood that they didn't have the proper work papers when they were hired.

"They knew, but as long as we were making money for them, they were happy," Juan says. "Now they're happy to have us go, because we've been working long enough that we're making more money."

Both said working conditions at Chipotle were abusive long before they were fired. Managers often asked them to work extra hours without overtime, and those who refused were punished with fewer hours of work the following week. They also said Latino workers were often given harder and more unpleasant work than the restaurant's white employees.

Even so, it was a paycheck they depended on. Maria has four children, and her husband's landscaping work dries up in cold weather. For years, her family has relied on her Chipotle wages to carry them through the winter.

"My kids are asking me if they're going to get Christmas presents this year," she says, "and I don't know the answer."

Juan, like many of the fired employees, has not been paid for his last days of work. Although Minnesota law requires that fired workers be paid for the balance of their work within 24 hours, Chipotle has yet to comply.

Chipotle's corporate headquarters disputes many of the fired workers' accusations, saying they are being paid everything they're owed and that the chain's treatment of employees is fair and respectful.

"We are saddened to be losing some excellent employees," Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold wrote in an email. "The laws in this area put employers in an untenable position—having to strike the difficult balance between enforcing immigration laws while not discriminating against any applicant."

Some of the fired workers believe that their immigration status entitled them to work, and want an opportunity to clear up any confusion that may have led to their firing, but so far Chipotle managers and corporate headquarters won't speak with them.

"We're just asking for fair treatment," Juan said. "We're not taking anyone's job. We came and applied for those jobs and we got them." 

 
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