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Illegally fired Chipotle employee returns to work in Manhattan, restaurant pays damages

Photo by Grant Lancaster

BY GRANT LANCASTER

Union workers and city officials turned out Wednesday afternoon in support of a Chipotle employee on her first shift back at work after an illegal firing and 11 other Chipotle employees who will file complaints against the fast food chain.

Louisa Mendez reported her firing to the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection in January, and these officials fast-tracked the process to get her job back because she was fired for missing work related to sick leave, in violation of the NYC Paid Safe and Sick Leave Law, said Lorelei Sala, commissioner of the department.

The settlement also requires Chipotle to pay Mendez for the sick leave she requested and to pay her $2,500 for the illegal retaliatory firing. However, the department does not have the authority to discipline Mendez’s managers for the abuse, Salas said.

Mendez spoke alongside other current and former Chipotle employees who have had problems with managers that would not let them take sick leave days or fired them when they took these days off.

Mendez was caring for her sick father and pregnant daughter last fall when her managers at the 14th Street Chipotle in Manhattan told her she was missing too many days of work, she said. Mendez was trying to save her sick days for when her daughter’s baby was born, but her managers made her take them.

“Workers shouldn’t have to choose between caring for their family and their job,” Mendez said.

Mendez and others, like Nigeria Brown, who was fired in January from a New York City Chipotle for missing work, had trouble with the app they are supposed to use to request days off, they said.

Mendez was never trained on how to use the app, and was fired before she could ask for help requesting sick days, she said.

Brown tried to use the app to file for sick days after she got seriously ill during a shift, and later when she had flu, but had trouble working the app she was not trained on and could not get more than one day off to recover, she said.

Carlos Hernandez, another of the 11 employees filing complaints against Chipotle on Wednesday, works at the Chipotle at 680 6th Ave., he said.

Hernandez was seriously ill during his shift, but his manager made him stay and work in the back, he said. Because of that, he is filing a health complaint because he thinks that his manager wronged both him and the customers by forcing him to work and putting customers at risk of infection, he said.

Salas thinks that workers like Mendez who stand up against illegal behavior by restaurants like Chipotle are sending a clear message, she said.

“We will not tolerate retaliation,” Salas said.

Her department fast-tracks all complaints of retaliation in order to get workers their jobs back as quickly as possible, Salas said. While they are concerned about retaliation at all restaurants, Chipotle is earning a bad reputation for violations in New York City, she said.

On top of the 11 new complaints today and the settlement over Mendez’s firing, Chipotle is facing a lawsuit from the city that alleges that five Brooklyn locations violated fair workweek laws. Additionally, 32BJ SEIU union members released a study Feb. 6 that recounted examples from current and former Chipotle employees of unsafe food handling and storage resulting from denying workers sick days and cutting corners with safety equipment and procedures.

New York City Council Member Brad Lander, who is sponsoring a law that would prevent fast food restaurants like Chipotle from firing employees without a justified financial reason, also spoke at the demonstration.

Lander credited Salas and her department for speedily addressing Mendez’s complaint and commended the workers who spoke up about mistreatment, he said.

“It is a scary thing to stand up for your rights when you know it might cost you your job,” Lander said.

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