Workers running for a union election at Chipotle in Augusta, Maine, accuse the company of trying to undermine their campaign by closing the restaurant.
The company notified employees of the closure Tuesday morning, hours before both sides were due to participate in a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board on the potential election.
“We have not been able to adequately staff this remote restaurant,” Laurie Schalow, the company’s director of corporate affairs, said in a statement. Ms. Schalow added that “due to these ongoing staffing challenges, there is no likelihood of reopening in the foreseeable future, which is why we have made the decision to close the restaurant permanently.”
An attorney representing the workers filed a complaint with the labor board alleging that the closure was an illegal act of retaliation.
“I refer to this as Union Busting 101,” said the attorney, Jeffrey Neil Young, who frequently represents unions in the state. “It’s a classic response: the employees decide to organize and the employer says that he is going to close the store.”
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The labor board will investigate the charge and issue a formal complaint if it finds merit in the allegation, at which point the case will go before an administrative law judge. The two parties could reach an agreement beforehand.
A handful of store workers walked off the job in mid-June to protest unsafe conditions they said stemmed from understaffing and insufficient training.
“Not being properly trained to prepare food has many risks for both the preparer and the people eating the food,” said Brandi McNease, a worker involved in the union strike and campaign. “You worry about knife skills, using equipment that is dangerous – hot, sharp.”
Within days, the company closed the store to the public as it looked to improve staffing, including hiring two recruiting experts, according to Ms. Schalow. During this time, workers continued to show up at the store, where they received training and helped clean it, but often for fewer hours per week than they previously worked.
On June 22, the workers filed a petition to hold union elections. The labor board requires at least 30 percent of workers to indicate their support before ordering one.
The hearing scheduled for Tuesday was meant to consider arguments from the two sides on the proposed election. Chipotle had claimed in filings that the election should not go ahead, in part because the store was understaffed and therefore workers eligible to vote would not be fully representative of its eventual workforce.
Mr. Young, the attorney representing the workers, said the closure could chill organizing efforts at the chain’s other stores, including those taking place in Lansing, Michigan, where workers also stood for election. union, and New York City.
“By closing the Augusta store, you’re signaling to Chipotle workers elsewhere that they’re involved or contemplating nascent organizational pushes that if they organize, they may be out of a job,” Mr. Young said.
Ms. Schalow, the Chipotle official, said in her statement that closing the store “has nothing to do with union activity.” The company said it had closed 13 locations out of about 3,000 due to staffing issues, performance, leases and other business reasons in the past 18 months. Most of the closures appear to have occurred in the first half of last year.
Chipotle has offered Augusta workers four weeks of severance pay based on their hours over the past two weeks, which have generally been lower than before the restaurant closed to the public. It has not offered to place the workers at other locations in Maine, the closest being about an hour away, according to the company.
Ms. McNease said that she and her co-workers planned to fight to get the store reopened. “No one is rescuing now,” she said.
Chipotle is among several employers in the service industry whose workers have sought to unionize in the past year. Roughly 200 corporate-owned Starbucks locations have voted to unionize since last fall, as have workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, a REI store in Manhattan and an Apple store in Maryland.
The labor board formally charged Starbucks with closing certain stores in retaliation for union organizing. The company has denied the allegations.
Last week, Starbucks said it would close an additional 16 stores due to safety concerns such as crime, which it said were reflected in incident reports over the past year. The union representing newly unionized Starbucks workers has filed unfair labor practice charges, accusing the company of closing stores to undermine union activity or avoid negotiating with unionized workers.