Chipotle, Undocumented Workers, And The Trouble With 'Enforcement-Only' Immigration


WASHINGTON - Miguel Bravo's year-and-a-half-long stint working at a Chipotle in Washington, D.C., came to an abrupt end on March 9. That day, he says, he and his co-workers learned that their manager had just been let go in the midst of an audit of the burrito chain by U.S. immigration officials. As Bravo tells it, when the workers went to the back of the restaurant to talk with a Chipotle representative, they were replaced with a new crew out front.

Suddenly without a job, Bravo started stretching his dollars, looking for work, and speaking out about what he considered an unfair parting with Chipotle. What the 28-year-old immigrant didn’t do was pack his bags and return to El Salvador. After all, it would have made little economic sense to do so. A worker in El Salvador is lucky to earn a few dollars a day, if he can find work at all. Papers or no, Bravo was staying in America.

Not surprisingly, the American fast-food industry still had a place for him. Within two months, Bravo found another job in Washington with a major restaurant chain that he declined to name. "It's easier, and there's less pressure," he says of the new gig. Though he earns just $8 an hour now -- one dollar less than he'd been pulling in at Chipotle, he says -- Bravo hopes to continue sending $500 a month back home to the wife and two children who he hasn't seen since coming to America eight years ago.

Bravo's decision says a lot about the challenges facing U.S. officials as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) goes after companies with undocumented workers on its payrolls. The Obama administration has generally adopted an "enforcement-only" policy on immigration, stepping up the auditing of companies while so far declining to push a specific plan for comprehensive immigration reform. (The President's highly anticipated speech this week on the matter was quickly panned as vague and lacking substance.) As Reuters has been reporting, Chipotle is perhaps the most visible company now in ICE's crosshairs, with a close look at its books forcing the company to shed hundreds of workers in Minnesota, Virginia, and Washington. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Chipotle probe has widened to Atlanta and Los Angeles as well.

But advocates of comprehensive reform like to point out that few, if any, of the fired Chipotle workers seem to be giving up on the idea of U.S. employment. The workers simply move to other jobs, perhaps elsewhere in the fast food industry, like Bravo, or elsewhere, moving off the books entirely to work for smaller and less conspicuous employers than Chipotle. No number of audits, these advocates point out, can change global economics.

"They're not going anywhere," Sarahi Uribe, an organizer with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, says of the D.C. workers. Uribe was walking outside the Chipotle on March 9 when she saw Bravo's crew standing outside. Since then, she's advocated on their behalf.

Rather than leave, several of the workers have grown quite vocal. They are demanding back pay for unused vacation, severance pay, and a public apology from Chipotle. Yet in a statement to The Huffington Post, Chipotle spokesperson Chris Arnold disputed the workers' version, saying that many of the former Washington employees had provided fraudulent work papers and that "most of them simply walked away from their jobs, others were let go," when the company addressed the situation. He also said Chipotle had paid "everyone everything they were owed."

"Some of these workers have worked at Chipotle for six years, and they’ve lived in the District of Columbia for even longer," says Uribe. "They have U.S. citizen children. Some of them are pregnant. They're part of this community."

Politicians often talk about the need to bring undocumented workers "out of the shadows," but in many ways the Chipotle workers were already halfway out, working "on the front lines, facing the public," says Audrey Singer, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. Even immigration hardliners would have to agree that's a better arrangement than having them working under the table, for sub-minimum wages and under dangerous conditions, in the tobacco fields of North Carolina or the tomato fields of Florida. Considering the unlikelihood that the fired Chipotle workers will simply leave, "the question is whether they will be driven further underground," says Singer.

The question also remains whether those vacant slots at Chipotle will in fact morph into better-paying positions for properly documented workers. Indeed, part of Wall Street's newfound skittishness on once-hot Chipotle stems from the possibility that the company's labor costs could rise. But any increased costs may have more to do with turnover than with noticeably higher wages. "If we see a systemwide turnover, it could have a dramatic negative effect on the company's margins," says Robert Derrington, an analyst with Morgan Keegan. But according to Derrington, Chipotle management has said they anticipated a modest bump of 20 to 30 basis points, or just a fraction of one percent, in their labor costs.

We shouldn’t assume that a more scrupulous Chipotle will necessarily translate into higher wages behind the burrito counter, says Daniel Siciliano, a Stanford Law School lecturer who tracks immigration and labor trends. Siciliano believes that many undocumented workers fill gaps in our workforce, rather than simply steal jobs and depress wages. As for mass exoduses like the one at Chipotle, "Does that improve wages for U.S. workers during a difficult recession? Is there a positive economic impact? There's no evidence of that, unfortunately," he says.

Chipotle's own statements would seem to confirm that. According to a report from Goldman Sachs, Chipotle executives said in March that the replacement workers in Minnesota actually came cheaper than the fired workers because they had no seniority.

And that's another element of this case that rankles advocates of immigrant rights -- the fired Chipotle workers were generally happy with their jobs, and although few people are willing to compliment Chipotle publicly right now, several people interviewed for this story said that the company seems to be one of the more decent players in an industry rife with low wages and sky-high turnover. An audit like the one at Chipotle "just drives people to employers who operate in criminal ways and more paperless ways," says Emily Tulli, an attorney at the National Immigration Law Center.

Bravo, for one, says that the pay at Chipotle was fair and his boss was "a nice guy." The departed workers seem to have been making more than the minimum wage, and the company is known to offer opportunities for advancement.

Take the case of one former Minnesota Chipotle manager, who was recently fired and asked that his name not be used because he's in the United States illegally. In his time at Chipotle, this young man had risen from crew member to shift manager to assistant manager and finally general manager, a position that at the time of his firing paid $44,000 annually. Considering he might earn just a few bucks a day in his native Mexico, he had attained something like the American Dream, a fact not lost on his area manager. When she broke the news to him that he was to be let go because of his immigration status, she wept.

Although this former manager is angry about the manner in which he was fired -- he says he had long ago told a superior that he was undocumented -- he has a hard time saying anything negative about Chipotle as a company.

"I've been here [in America] for 11 years," he said, adding that he's worked at two other fast-food restaurants and a shoe-store chain. "Chipotle was by far the greatest company I've worked for, when it comes to feeling like you worked at something and that you can move up within the company. I think it's a great company still. And if Chipotle hadn’t been checked by ICE, I can assure you that we would still be there and still be moving up in the company."

The former manager is just the kind of person that politicians talk about clearing a path for. He's hard-working, he already speaks excellent English, and he's determined to work in the U.S. one way or another. But despite his talks with lawyers about attaining work permits and residency, he hasn't gotten anywhere on legalization. "It's quite difficult," he says.

Though comprehensive reform remains a pipe dream at the moment, the former manager has still managed to find another restaurant job, with a chain that hasn’t scrutinized his status and pays him a $40,000 salary as manager. But many of his former co-workers haven’t been as lucky. The problem, he says, is not that they're undocumented but that they have Chipotle on their resumes. Given the hooplah surrounding the firings, it seems they've been branded troublemakers.

"[Because of] the fact that the union was helping us and we did protests and made a big deal, the companies are defensive when it comes to hiring people who worked at Chipotle," he says. "They never get called back for interviews."

And that problem may reveal the true condition of employment in many restaurants -- not that workers provide legitimate documents, but that they suffer any indignities quietly.

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