Nearly 10,000 Current and Former Chipotle Workers Join Wage Theft Class Action Suit

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Chipotle has one of the worst ratios of top management salaries to the average crew member wage, says Kent Williams, who is the lead attorney on this class action suit

KIM BROWN, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown.

In May of this year the New York state’s attorney general announced it was filing suit against Dominos Pizza chain alleging that the company failed to pay employees overtime, also underpaid workers and failed to reimburse delivery drivers for out of pocket expenses. This is a practice known as wage theft. It’s when an employer forces an employee to work off the clock or doesn’t pay the legal minimum wage. Or not paying people overtime. Not only is wage theft illegal but it costs workers millions of dollars in lost wages every year. Dominos, Uber, and McDonalds are a few companies that are currently fighting wage theft lawsuits, and now add Chipotle to that mix. Nearly 10,000 current and former employees of the popular Tex-Mex chain have joined a class action suit against the company saying that Chipotle engaged in illegal practices.

Today we’re joined with the lead attorney on the umbrella case of this. Kent Williams is representing the lead plaintiff in the Turner vs. Chipotle lawsuit. Ken has been practicing law for over 25 years and he represents defendants and plaintiffs in a variety of different employee related labor type of lawsuits. He joins us today from Minnesota. Kent thank you so much for speaking with us.

KENT WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.

BROWN: Kent tell us about Leah Turner and what caused her to file this lawsuit.

WILLIAMS: Well, Leah Turner back in, I believe it was 2013, filed an action against Chipotle. It was an individual action so it was solely on her behalf, alleging that she had been required to work off the clock during her work at Chipotle as an hourly employee, which is a violation of both federal and state laws that require employers to pay employees for every hour that they work. So that’s what prompted her initial lawsuit.

BROWN: And now there are over 9,000 plaintiffs, nearly 10,000 people who have joined this lawsuit. How are you able to find so many Chipotle workers both current and former who have experienced this type of discriminatory practice? Not necessarily discriminatory but theft of wages which you are alleging in your suit.

WILLIAMS: Right. The way that the process works, it’s really a two-step process. Though in this case it may only be a one step process. But what we do is we file a motion early on in the case to establish a collective action. And what that means then is if that motion is granted, notice is sent out to the pool of potential employees both current and former who could conceivably participate in this case if they experienced the same conduct by Chipotle that Leah Turner did. Along with her other named plaintiffs. Other named plaintiffs have joined the case as well.

BROWN: And how many states were you able to find people who had experienced this? Not just in Minnesota but from people from across the country have also joined this suit.

WILLIAMS: Yes. There are several suits around the country. One is in Minnesota. Actually, two are in Minnesota. The Turner case, though, is actually venued in Colorado, which is Chipotle’s headquarters. They’re headquartered in Denver. And to answer your question we believe we have people from every state who have experienced being forced to work off the clock at Chipotle.

BROWN: So what have been the consequences for workers who have experienced wage theft from Chipotle?

WILLIAMS: Well, first and most obvious, there’s a loss of income. If you’re not paid for the time you worked that’s income that you don’t get, that you can’t use to pay your bills, feed your family, do all those kinds of things. In addition to that we have seen evidence of some retaliation by Chipotle against workers who complained about working off the clock. Anything from having their hours cut to being written up for some sort of a spurious allegation. We also had people who had told us they either quit or were terminated. And one of their reasons for termination they believe was because they were having to work off the clock.

BROWN: So some of the examples that I’ve read in researching this is workers would say that in closing, when they were scheduled to close the store, they would get punched out automatically at, say, around 12:30 or so, but were obligated to remain on the clock and work without getting paid, and this is a very common practice, apparently.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. That’s probably one of the more common practices that we’ve seen. And a variation on that would be to require the employee to punch out before the automatic clock out, because the automatic clock out was sort of a red flag for Chipotle. Not so much to catch off-the-clock work, but to basically lambaste the store manager for having people working there so late.

So what they would do is require people to punch out before the 12:30 clock out to make it look like it was a normal manual clock out when in fact people were still working.

BROWN: And this was an effort to do what? In order to boost the bottom line of these individuals stores and I guess the company as a whole to show that they weren’t spending a lot or keeping their labor cost low? Like what has the company given a reason why they engaged in this?

WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, the company denies doing anything wrong as you might expect. But it’s also true that Chipotle has made a big deal in their public filings. They’re a publicly traded company. They’ve made a big deal in their public filings about their ability to keep their labor costs down and manage their labor expense, and from what we’ve seen and from what people have told us, that was the motivation, was to help Chipotle’s bottom line keep their labor expense low and have them be more profitable as a company.

BROWN: I referenced Dominos in my intro, and Dominos has been sued multiple times for wage theft. You know given that this is the line of law that you practice, in your experience, are these lawsuits a good deterrence for companies to behave and pay workers what they are owed.

WILLIAMS: You know, I wouldn’t say they’re a deterrent so much. I mean, I think companies engage in this practice thinking that they’re going to get away with it. And if not, that any sort of a dust up over it is going to be individualized or localized and they can just sort of put those fires out as they come up. That seems to have been Chipotle’s practice from what I can tell. This is not the first time Chipotle has been sued for requiring people to work off the clock. It is the biggest and most comprehensive of those lawsuits but there have been many, many lawsuits filed, both individual and collective, before this. This is the first one though in which a companywide collective like this has been established.

BROWN: And should the case turn out favorably for your clients, what could be the larger impact across the food service workers sector? For people who make an hourly wage who are willing to go to work and work the hours that they are scheduled. What could be the benefits and the larger takeaway for not only your clients, but all those workers who find themselves in these situations?

WILLIAMS: Well, the immediate impact, of course, for the Chipotle worker would be hopefully that they would be compensated for the time that they had to work off the clock. In the larger context I would hope that this would raise knowledge and awareness for these workers that they’re not trapped, they do have options, and if they’re being required to work off the clock by their employer that’s illegal and they should talk to their attorney about it. And even if the attorney they talk to doesn’t handle those kinds of cases, attorneys all talk to each other and we refer cases to other people who have expertise in that area. And so if nothing else the lawyer that they do talk to could refer them to somebody who does handle those kinds of cases and can evaluate it for what type of action if any there should be against the company.

Another thing that they can do, that they should do, is notify their state department of labor. Whoever that is. Just about every state in the country has its own department of labor and they’ll investigate these kinds of things. And people if nothing else should call up that agency or send an email and make a complaint if they’re being required to work off the clock.

As far as companies go, it’s no secret that Chipotle has one of the worst ratios of top management salaries to the wage that’s paid to the average crew member. I think the ratio I saw in 2014 was like 1,500:1. Then on top of that, chisel away at the paltry amount that these employees make to begin with is really reprehensible. So I would hope that an action like this that is getting some notoriety just because of the enormous scale at which this scheme was really implemented around the country, that that should cause other companies to sit up and take notice and hopefully change their ways before they have a similar kind of an explosion with their business.

BROWN: So Kent lastly, what’s next for Turner vs. Chipotle? What’s the next issue on the docket as it were? What’s the next thing that’s about to happen with this case?

WILLIAMS: Sure. Well, both sides, lawyers on both sides, will sit down and work out a discovery plan. We got 10,000 people in this collective, more or less. I can’t imagine Chipotle is going to want to take the depositions of every one of these people. They may ask for that. But we would resist that because we think that defeats the purpose of representational litigation like this is.

But we’ll have to hash that out. Just what kind of discovery will be taken and of whom. And then we’ll proceed to engage in discovery, which is really the formal exchange of information, documents, testimonies, so that each side can be apprised of the other side’s claims and defenses so that there’s no surprises at trial.

BROWN: Well if anyone is looking for any more information about this case you can go to the website ChipotleTurnerCAA.Com. And we’ve been speaking with the lead attorney on this class action suit against Chipotle on behalf of workers who alleged that they have experienced wage theft. We’ve been speaking with Kent Williams. Kent has been practicing law for 25 years. He also represents plaintiffs and defendants in employment law, anti-trusts, and other class and collective litigation around the country. He’s been joining us today from Minnesota. Kent we really appreciate your time today. Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Well thank you again for having me.

BROWN: And you’ve been watching the Real News Network.

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