OPINION: Chipotle child labor violations highlight need for institutional change

A person carries heavy load of textbooks labeled School, Sleep Deprivation, and Chipotle on top. The person is thinking about money, in a speech bubble.
(Emma Tao • The Student Life)

When I worked as a cashier at Chipotle last summer, I spent long hours standing, processing transactions and trying to appease customers waiting for their orders, while keeping the front of the store clean and helping out on the line when necessary. At the end of the day, when the last customers had left at 10 p.m, I would begin to close the front of the store, sweeping and mopping the floor and cleaning the bathrooms. I would often leave exhausted after midnight, long after my shift was supposed to end.

Since the cost of living in the Bay Area is extremely high, I was paid a minimum wage of $15 per hour. Typically, I might’ve collected around $2 in tips per shift, $4 if I was lucky. I didn’t actually need the money, but I often wondered what I would do if I really had to scrape by on $15 per hour. And it was such tiring work — I couldn’t imagine working such a draining job for the rest of my life.

On Jan. 27, Chipotle was fined $1.4 million by Massachusetts for more than 13,000 estimated child labor violations in more than 50 locations across the state. 

Minors under the age of 18 had been working past midnight and for more than 48 hours a week; the company also hired minors who did not have work permits. Managers also granted employees paid time off only for certain illnesses, and failed to keep accurate records and pay timely wages, according to Time

The fast-casual Mexican food chain has agreed to a settlement close to $2 million.

But the case is far from closed. Across the nation, hourly workers who are paid rates close to minimum wage are struggling, and the restaurants, shops and other businesses that employ them are facing hard times with heavy turnover and understaffing. 

I observed this firsthand at the Chipotle location where I worked. Management found it hard to retain good, consistent workers, and there were often not enough workers to staff the closing shift.

In light of such problems, Chipotle has made an effort to make its jobs more attractive to entry-level workers. For example, in October 2019, the company announced that it would pay for the college tuition fees of some employees.

However, as seen by the numerous child labor violations that Chipotle committed partly because of problems like understaffing, such incentives are clearly not enough to ensure steady staff at places that employ low-wage workers.

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The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, but many states and cities have higher minimum wages. This still doesn’t mean that it is feasible to live on minimum wage. 

For example, in Los Angeles County, the living wage (the hourly rate that an individual has to earn to support themselves and their family) for one adult with no children is $14.36, but the minimum wage is only $14.25, according to the county government. And, of course, the living wage increases with the number of children a worker must support — for one adult with one child, the living wage is $30.27.

Increasing the minimum wage often seems like the first step to turn to. But increasing the minimum wage also means that employers will have to let go of more hourly workers to make up for the higher wages that they are paying. 

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that if the federal minimum wage is raised to $15 per hour, 17 million workers who would otherwise earn less than $15 would see their wages increase, and an additional 10 million workers who earn slightly more than $15 would also see their wages rise.

But, they also estimate that 1.3 million people would lose their jobs. There’s hope in raising the federal minimum wage to $10 per hour — only about zero to 0.1 million workers might lose their jobs — but such a minute raise may not make much of a difference, since only 1.5 million workers who would otherwise have earned less than $10 per hour would see their wages increase.

Another 2 million workers who would otherwise earn slightly more than $10 per hour might see their wages rise as well.

We often see minimum wage jobs as just for teenagers, but the reality is that adults are struggling to make ends meet on such low wages. One solution similar to the idea that Chipotle has, in paying for workers’ college tuitions, is to help low-wage workers develop professionally, starting when they come into entry-level positions, and helping them work their way up the corporate ladder. This can entail more extensive training (I can tell you I barely got any training at Chipotle) and professional development workshops.

If we show low-wage workers the opportunities that might arise in their careers with companies that they enter as entry-level employees, they might be more likely to stick with low-wage jobs at companies like Chipotle, where they might have promising futures, instead of turning to options such as gig economy jobs like driving for rideshare companies, which only exacerbate the low wage crisis.

As consumers, we can start with the little things. Tip a bit more — you can afford to give up your $3 that would have gone to coffee, and you don’t know how much that extra $3 might mean to someone. Show minimum wage workers the respect they deserve. They already have so many burdens resting on their shoulders — it’s only humane to try to make their lives just a little bit easier.

Michelle Lum HM ’23 will never forget her summer spent working at Chipotle, which taught her about a world she had never fully understood before. She has the utmost respect for minimum wage workers, who must get by on so little, and hopes that their lives may be improved through institutional change.

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