As New York moves forward with “reopening” in the coming months, indoor dining will be permitted for the first time since restaurants shuttered due to the pandemic. Chipotle Mexican Grill, a fast-casual chain with a dubious food-safety track record, is getting ready to “welcome guests back into our dining rooms in select locations.”
But some Chipotle workers who have been behind the counter throughout the pandemic are not so sure about welcoming back customers to sit down for their burritos and bowls. They have been advocating for better safety protections, such as plexiglass barriers, and a policy for informing workers about exposure to COVID-19.
Jeremy Espinal, who works at a Chipotle on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, said he recently took a few weeks off as a safety precaution. But the conditions at his restaurant remained grim upon his return, he said. Although he came with his own mask, he noticed that his coworkers had only been given “cut-up T-shirt kind of masks that I feel aren’t adequate.”
Though customers for takeout generally follow the line markers spaced six feet apart, Espinal said that it is a struggle for staff to practice social distancing: “We have six, seven people in the back of the house. It’s pretty hard to get far enough to feel really safe. . . . You kind of have to squeeze onto a wall to try to get as far away from people as you can.” He fears that if his restaurant opens for indoor dining, “with the [restaurant] being so small and cramped, having customers in is just going to make it worse for us, and put not only ourselves, but also our customers, at risk.”
Laurie Schalow, Chief Corporate Affairs and Food Safety Officer at Chipotle said in a statement that it “is monitoring this evolving situation very closely and working with the [Centers for Disease Control], [Food and Drug Administration], and local officials. We continue to take additional precautions to safeguard our employees and guests,” including extra sanitizing measures at restaurants, face masks and “daily wellness checks” for workers, line markers for social distancing, and “air treatment systems.”
But safety is also about dealing with tough social situations, including hostile customers who bristle at the safety rules. Anthony Gorostiza, who works at another Chipotle on Sixth Avenue, said that, while customers have generally complied with the mask-wearing requirements,
The biggest issue that we have is when customers come in to ask to use the bathroom. [When] we refuse them access, that’s typically when we get the more animated characters. . . . I have to just remind them it’s due to COVID, it’s a restroom, it’s unsanitary, we just want to maintain a healthy, safe environment. . . . We just hope that they would respect it and leave the premises without any issues. Sometimes they don’t.
Chipotle recently eliminated the 10 percent hazard pay it had offered its staff since late March, and some workers’ hours have been cut during the lockdown. They are faced with the typical dilemma COVID-19 presents: while they are afraid to go to work, they are also at least as scared about not having enough work.
Luisa Mendez, who works at a Chipotle in the East Village, said her current schedule has her working just twelve hours a week: “The money that I’m receiving—you can’t support a family with that. You have to pay rent, you have to pay bills, you have to provide food, you can’t do that with this job.”
Gorostiza said he had subbed for coworkers’ shifts and came in early just to get in a few more hours of work. “I’m struggling just to stay afloat now,” he said. “This is not acceptable at all. How long can I go on like this? . . . Something has to change.”
Like many other fast food workers, Gorostiza, Mendez, and Espinal have been campaigning for fair wages and working conditions while agitating for a union. In recent weeks, with the backing of the local service workers union SEIU 32BJ, Chipotle workers in New York staged a protest against the corporation’s “Black Lives Matter Hypocrisy,” pointing out that while it had boasted that it would donate $1 million “to fight systemic racism,” it was perpetuating racial injustice by cutting pay and mistreating its many Black and Latinx workers.
Mendez said that she had seen some changes in her workplace since she began participating in walkouts with her coworkers. “I was usually very scared and nervous to bring up issues unless I thought for sure I couldn’t get punished in any way. But after organizing and seeing how the company responds to [our] strikes, I feel more like I have a voice now. . . . I feel more empowered to bring up issues [with my manager] that I see within my workspace.”
Espinal has been trying to persuade his coworkers of the advantages of unionizing, drawing on his experience growing up as the child of two union hotel workers.
They’ve seen what a union can bring for me, and for my family . . . and they definitely want the benefits and the protection that a union can bring. But it is scary, going against [the corporation] and speaking out for yourself. . . . But I know once they see their true value, and that it’s what they deserve to have, having well-paying jobs. They [will] feel more confident than ever to take action and demand what they deserve.
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent’s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.