Why almost 10,000 employees are suing Chipotle

After settling claims in several states, the burrito chain faces a class-action lawsuit from employees across the country.

Gene J. Puskar/AP
A Dec. 27, 2015 file photo showing a Chipotle restaurant at Union Station in Washington.

Nearly 10,000 current and former Chipotle employees have joined a class-action lawsuit against the burrito chain, alleging that they were routinely forced to work off the clock.

Chipotle, say plaintiffs in the case, "routinely requires hourly-paid restaurant employees to punch out, and then continue working until they are given permission to leave," according to a complaint initially filed in 2014.

“If an employee does not punch out as required, Chipotle utilizes time clock devices that automatically record an employee as having punched out, even if the employee has not punched out and is still working.”

The class-action originates from a lawsuit brought by a former manager in Colorado and follows wage-theft claims made by employees at chain locations across the country. Chipotle has settled with claimants in labor cases brought in Maryland, Florida, and California, the Colorado Springs Gazette reports, and denies any wrongdoing in the current lawsuit, saying it has paid all wages due to employees.

"Chipotle has argued this is a few rogue managers who aren't following policy," lawyer Kent Williams, who is representing the plaintiffs, said in an interview with CNN Money. "Our view, especially given the number of people opting in, is that it's a systematic problem at Chipotle."

The case could be particularly bad news for Chipotle given its reputation as a healthier, more employee-friendly alternative to traditional fast-food outlets. As the Atlantic noted in 2015, the chain has largely been left alone – as have other purveyors of "fast casual" fare – by advocates of a $15 minimum wage. But its reputation may belie the reality that its employees are often paid only slightly more than those at chains like McDonald's or Taco Bell.

It also underscores a rise over past decades in claims by workers seeking to recoup wages from employers across the country, which federal labor officials say corresponds with a rise in wage theft itself. In 2014, The New York Times quoted David Weil, a director of the Department of Labor’s federal wage and hour division, in linking the phenomenon to companies’ growing use of subcontractors and temp agencies, which can allow companies at the top to deny knowledge of wrongdoing. 

Business advocates, meanwhile, often see a union agenda behind the lawsuits, which may indeed be linked – though perhaps less directly than those advocates claim – to pushes by workers’-rights groups to strike back against pay violations committed against minimum- and low-wage workers. 

In a January working paper, Daniel Galvin, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University, noted that widespread minimum-wage law violations had driven such campaigns.

“These policy campaigns have been formative for the development of alt-labor" – non-union groups composed of members that pay no dues but agitate collectively – "and signal that the thrust of labor politics may be changing, increasingly moving out of the workplace and into the political arena,” he wrote. 

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