By Levi Sumagaysay
For more than three years, Patrick Rodriguez has worked at a Chipotle restaurant at the northern tip of Manhattan, a vital food lifeline during the pandemic for the nurses and doctors who work a block away at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
“Last year, we were heroes [serving healthcare workers],” Rodriguez said Wednesday. “And now, look at us. We’re striking.”
Rodriguez and several other Chipotle workers did not show up for their shifts Wednesday morning, becoming the latest group of fast-food workers who have gone on strike or held labor-related actions around the nation in the past several months. The Chipotle location’s workers say they need to call attention to their hours being cut — and that when they are at their jobs, they are overworked and overwhelmed with orders.
In the age of the iPhone, DoorDash and a pandemic, online orders have exploded in an overwhelming mix of takeout and delivery, resulting in a lucrative additional revenue source for fast-food restaurants—and a lot of stressed-out workers and frustrated customers.
Last week, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. /zigman2/quotes/200781108/composite CMG +2.77% Chief Executive Brian Niccol said on the company’s earnings call that the company has reached nearly $2.7 billion in online revenue so far this year, close to its total $2.8 billion in online sales all of last year.
For Chipotle workers who assemble burritos and taco bowls in front of customers at restaurants, as well as for customers who order online, that has meant increasingly tough conditions. MarketWatch spoke with current and former workers in five states and reviewed hundreds of Chipotle worker complaints on Reddit, documenting food and supply shortages, inadequate space at stores, problems with staffing, and unrealistic online customer order times.
Through the third quarter, the company’s overall revenue is up 27% since the same period last year, while its employee count has climbed just 8% higher. In other words, Chipotle is churning out a lot more burritos, but the number of people making them has not risen anywhere near as much.
As a cashier, Rodriguez said the pace can be dizzying, especially because online orders have become part of a crushing new reality.
“It’s like being ripped into two,” Rodriguez said. Because his location is so understaffed, he said there’s a person on the digital-make line, which handles online orders, while he often is solo on the main line that serves in-store customers. That means preparing orders and handling the cash register by himself.
Yet his hours have been cut to about 15 to 17 hours a week from about 32 hours a week, because he said the location’s general manager is trying to save money.
Chipotle workers are not unionized, but Rodriguez and his colleagues got support from the Service Employees International Union for Wednesday’s walkout. In a news release, the union noted that Chipotle is already facing a lawsuit filed by New York City earlier this year, accusing it of violating the Fair Workweek Law, which requires that employers give workers a good faith estimate of their regular schedule as well as a two-week notice of their set schedule.
Manny Pastreich, secretary treasurer for SEIU Local 32BJ in New York City, said workers contact the union not just over wages but issues like workload and not being treated with respect by their employers. The rise of delivery that was sparked by the pandemic has changed the fast-food industry, he said.
“It’s just become part of the way people are ordering food. And the staffing hasn’t matched the increased workload,” Pastreich said.
‘The orders wouldn’t stop’
There was a point at the beginning of the pandemic last year when no one was going out to eat, and Chipotle employee Albert Morales said he was “thinking no one would have a job.”
Then, “boom, the next day the orders wouldn’t stop,” said the service manager of a Chipotle in the Bronx, which he says is the most popular Chipotle location in the northern borough of New York City. During one of the busiest times in the past year, his location ran out of paper the orders were being printed on so they had to borrow some from the Starbucks next door.
But some of the issues Morales has had to deal with have not been so easy to resolve. Morales recalls a day when his location was closed to in-store dining and was fulfilling only online orders. A backup with about 30 people waiting outside resulted, and one customer was getting increasingly agitated after claiming he had been waiting for his food for an hour. The customer picked up a chair and threw it, leaving a mark on one of the windows.
Morales called the police twice, but nobody came until he and his employees flagged down a couple of officers they saw driving by. Those officers eventually calmed the man down, who by then had been raging for 15 minutes.
“He was yelling and cursing,” Morales said. “He wanted to fight with me and the employees, and wanted to beat up our security guard.”
A look at more than 1.3 million transactions at Chipotle, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Panda Express and Burger King from January 2020 to September 2021 shows huge spikes in online spending during the beginning of the pandemic last year, according to an analysis by Edison Trends. Chipotle saw a surge of 172% in online spending from January to May last year. That spending has continued to increase for the most part since then, with McDonald’s and Chipotle seeing the most online spending by their customers, respectively.
Laurie Schalow, chief corporate affairs officer at Chipotle, downplayed worker concerns. “We were seeing increased staffing needs, however, Chipotle is incredibly fortunate to have a steady influx of applicants due to its strong values, leading benefits and mission to cultivate a better world,” she said in an email to MarketWatch.
“In a few minor instances, there have been challenges with available labor so we made adjustments in these restaurants to temporarily accommodate the needs of the business,” she added. Those adjustments included changing hours of operations or having stores switch to digital-only orders during certain times. Chipotle did not quickly respond to a request for comment about Wednesday’s employee walkout at one of its Manhattan locations.
Niccol, Chipotle’s chief, sent mixed messages about the worker shortages during the company’s earnings call. On one hand, he said “We do a good job of winning that hiring competition.” On the other hand, he said “I know we’re missing sales because not all [restaurants] are fully staffed.”
Some workers couldn’t take it anymore
Andrew Luettgen quit working at a Chipotle in Bloomington, Ind., in March. He said the store “kept losing people left and right,” and he was set to graduate from college anyway. The staffing shortage at his store meant he would frequently get texts from managers, asking him to work extra shifts.
“Sometimes I had already worked 40 hours,” he said. “Sometimes I just needed time to rest.”
Though Luettgen had not meant to leave his job until May, he made a “spur of the moment decision” to quit after he got some pushback for standing up for his colleagues making food for digital orders. Luettgen felt the general manager unfairly got upset at them during one of the store’s busy times.