Months after a union petition went missing at a Lawrence Chipotle, some current and former employees say that the restaurant has been attempting to push out workers who had signed by disproportionately enforcing policies and accelerating termination.
Quinlan Muller, who drafted the original petition in October, said that nearly every employee who signed the first petition no longer works at the store on Massachusetts Street.
Multiple workers alleged that the restaurant chain fired them or their peers for reasons that typically do not necessitate termination.
“I’ve worked for Chipotle for over four years, and I’ve only ever seen maybe two people ever get fired,” Muller said. “And I’ve worked at like five different stores. Within the past two months, they’ve fired like five or six people.”
In October, Muller filed an Unfair Labor Practice claim against the restaurant, alleging violations of the National Labor Relations Act. The allegations are mostly centered on Section 8, which says that “It shall be an unfair labor practice for an employer to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees” in their right to form a union.
Following this, the store required employees to sign new policies for attendance, dress code and cash handling. Quickly, employees noticed differences in how those who signed the original petition and those who didn’t were treated.
Chipotle’s Employee Corrective Action Form lists three steps before termination: A documented verbal warning, a written warning, a final warning and termination. Two employees were fired after only one warning, and one had infractions from years ago listed on their form, from before they had signed the new policies.
“Chipotle has been so intentional, careful and discreet about how they’ve been going about things,” Muller said.
Mass Street Chipotle’s general manager declined to comment for this article. Chipotle’s corporate media relations did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment.
Of the approximately 20 employees who signed the petition, Muller said that only five or six still work there. A few have been fired and more than 10 have quit because of deteriorating working conditions.
“It has had a drastic impact on the store because in two months they’ve almost replaced everyone that used to work there,” Muller said.
In a recording of a conversation between Mass Street Chipotle employee Ruben Haro-Villa and a manager, the manager says that a Chipotle field leader, who oversees all three Lawrence locations, has a list of all the workers who signed the original union petition.
“They talked to every employee who signed the union,” said former employee Josh Egermeier. “[The field leader] would come talk to all of us trying to convince us that we shouldn’t create a union because it could ruin our chances of building a career with Chipotle.”
In her prior years working at Chipotle, Muller said, she saw their field leader rarely — maybe a few times a year. But as soon as the petition went missing, he was at the store multiple times a week.
“Back when I made the first petition, we were really understaffed, and I never saw [the field leader]. He never came in to help our store,” Muller said. “But then as soon as they heard about the petitions, I saw them around the store.”
In October, Muller’s petition had enough support to file for an election before it went missing at the store overnight.
“He has the petition that Quinlan originally gave everyone to sign,” Haro-Villa said. “He has the names of those who signed the petition, and they never told us that.”
The new hires who have replaced the terminated workers are all hesitant to join the union effort, Muller noticed. She believes this was due to pushes from the general manager to dissuade unionization during worker orientation.
“During the orientation process, she would tell brand new people, ‘So, you know, there are talks of a union going on here; here is why I don’t think that we need a union,’” Muller said.
Any efforts by employees pushing for a union were hushed by management, Muller said.
“If you’re mentioning something to the new hires, they would get really antsy about that,” Muller said. “They’d be like, ‘OK, you go to the back,’ or ‘You go do this thing and get very far away from anybody else.’”
Maycee Nicholson, who worked at Chipotle on Mass Street, didn’t sign the original petition despite being on board with the union. She noticed a difference in the way she was treated compared to those who had signed the petition.
“I could tell there would be a little bit more leeway on me for like, dress code,” Nicholson said. “I would come in with necklaces, and we weren’t allowed to wear necklaces, but they wouldn’t mention anything. It was just smaller things like that. I could tell they were a little bit more lenient with me, and especially some of the newer hires, than they were with people that were very adamantly pro-union.”
Employees at both the 23rd Street and Sixth Street Chipotle locations said they have not had the same level of policy enforcement. Workers at both stores had to read and sign the new policies, but it has not been aggressively enforced, according to employees from both locations.
Muller has been in contact with employees from the Lansing, Michigan Chipotle branch, which so far is the only successfully unionized Chipotle location. At that location, management didn’t know about the union until after they had filed for an election. The company last year shut down a store in Maine that had filed for an election with the NLRB, according to an article from Slate.
Some Mass Street employees have attempted to transfer to one of the other Lawrence locations, but those who signed the petition have not been allowed to do so, Muller said.
Egermeier, who had signed the petition, requested to transfer to the 23rd Street location because he was having car troubles and the 23rd Street store was closer to him. He said he had been working four positions at once at the Mass Street Chipotle and had been denied requests for a raise due to his increased workload. When he requested to transfer, he was told that he would have to wait for a position to open. But soon after his request, he was taken off the schedule at Mass Street and was left without a job.
“Basically, putting them in a position to either work there and eventually get fired for something or basically forcing them to quit because they don’t want to work there anymore,” Muller said.
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Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.