The company known for E. coli outbreaks has made headlines for a different type of safety issue. This Monday, the Massachusetts attorney general fined Chipotle Mexican Grill $1.4 million over allegations it regularly violated the state’s child labor laws.
In an audit of six restaurants, the chain was found to regularly allow minors to work more than nine hours a day and more than 48 hours a week, according to The New York Times. While these circumstances may pale in comparison to those of child sweatshops, they certainly are jarring in the U.S. context. The country began discouraging child labor almost a century ago.
Even if the historical precedent wasn’t in place, these violations make little sense for a large and well-known company like Chipotle. Most likely, hiring managers receive tons of job applications and therefore should be able to expand their teams. If they’re understaffed, Chipotle corporate has enough financial resources for it to disturb their business operation.
And yet, authorities estimate that the company has accumulated 13,000 violations since 2015. The scale of that estimate means that individual hiring managers aren’t responsible and cannot be scapegoated. More likely, this is a result of Chipotle corporate directing them as such to weather the current economic landscape.
The low unemployment rate does make it difficult for Chipotle to fill its low-wage positions. But Chipotle is not the only corporation struggling to hire; broadly-positive economic conditions should not be twisted to justify exploitation of vulnerable employees. If anything, the extremely low unemployment rate means that most places are hiring and these employees can turn to other companies who will not work them to the bone.
A company should not circumvent the business problem of understaffing by taking advantage of cash-strapped teens. Working 48 hours is exhausting and that is only exacerbated by the fact that this job requires them to remain attentive and on their feet. A young man or woman would only agree to and endure those conditions if they desperately needed the job.
However, getting fined for child labor law violations doesn’t mean that Chipotle should become dependent on their older workers in the same way. They do not have the same protections and those working conditions are just as exhausting for them. Chipotle corporate management ought to care about its average employees the same way it cares about its top line.
As a part of the final settlement, Chipotle will pay an additional $500,000 to train young workers and fund education and oversight programs about child labor, raising the settlement fee to almost $2 million. This legal solution is not only meaningless, but also allows the company to not admit guilt for these alleged violations.
$2 million is a drop in the bucket for Chipotle; more importantly, it is barely a slap on the wrist. Due to their business model being so reliant on human employees, the company will most likely continue to violate child labor laws and find ways to conceal it.
This settlement is about optics, rather than a business model transformation as it undoubtedly should be. If $2 million does not sufficiently demonstrate our frustration, perhaps taking our business elsewhere to Qdoba or Moe’s will.