Chipotle’s Newest Effort to Improve Food Safety Could Be a Windfall for Workers

Paid sick leave for employees could help stem norovirus outbreaks—but the company will have to enforce its policy to make it work.

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Jan 20, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

In the last few months, Chipotle has gone from the biggest name in sustainable fast food to the corporate face of food-borne illness. In July, five customers in Seattle contracted E. coli, and six additional outbreaks followed. Sixty-four were sickened with salmonella in Minnesota a few months later, and 243 people in California and 143 in Boston fell ill in a pair of norovirus outbreaks that were traced back to the chain. Altogether, more than 500 people in multiple states have fallen ill from the outbreaks—some of the causes of which are still unknown.

Yesterday, in the wake of falling stock prices and bad publicity surrounding the outbreaks, Chipotle yet again announced an “enhanced food safety program” designed to stop similar events. “Most of the new protocols are already in place, thanks to the hard work and dedication of our excellent restaurant teams,” said founder Steve Ells. “Additionally, we have implemented unprecedented food safety standards with our suppliers, which make the food coming into our restaurants safer than ever before.”

The company notes that it is adding “high-resolution DNA-based testing” of ingredients before they reach restaurants; changes to food prep and handling as well as better internal employee training; and paid sick leave in efforts to end the scourge of food-borne illness at the chain. Policies don’t work, however, unless they’re enforced.

Chipotle has offered paid sick leave to all employees since July 1, 2015—just before the first of these outbreaks began. Yet the norovirus outbreaks, which sickened more than 380 people, were traced to Chipotle employees who came to work while ill. This is not too surprising, as infected food workers cause 70 percent of all norovirus outbreaks. Since the outbreak was traced, the sick employees who caused it have apparently been subjected to unknown disciplinary measures, as The New York Times reported.

“As a matter of policy, any sick employees will be held out of work until they are healthy and cleared to return,” Communications Director Chris Arnold told The Boston Globe last December. The question is why these employees came to work if they were given paid time off and it was against company policy to allow them to work while sick?

The answers may have more to do with the nature of shift-based food-service work than with Chipotle itself. Much like retail, the food industry needs cooks in the kitchen, servers on the floor, and at Chipotle, burrito makers filling tortillas with juicy carnitas to survive. Most restaurant managers require employees who call in sick to get their shift covered (meaning calling an employee roster’s worth of names while ill) or to just come in anyway.

Even without paid sick leave, which would require a restaurant to pay the employee who is missing work in addition to the person who covers that shift, there is often extreme pressure to work while sick. In my five-year stint in the restaurant industry, I’ve been repeatedly badgered to come in to work when ill, including once when I had food poisoning and another when I vomited repeatedly in between greeting customers at the host stand. These were all cases where I’d asked to remain home on unpaid sick leave.

In states that allow at-will employment (meaning you can lose your job for any reason at any time), managers are within their rights to fire an employee who calls in sick or can’t get a shift covered. A study from the Environmental Health Specialists Network found that sick employees were more likely to stay home when they worked in a restaurant that was less busy, had more experienced managers, or had on-call coworkers available to cover for them.

While paid sick leave is an important step toward making employees more likely to stay home when necessary, it doesn’t begin to address the pressures from management. Chipotle’s new food-safety plan doesn’t specifically attempt to remedy this issue either.