Chipotle workers have joined a national trend of filing class-action lawsuits against an employer for unpaid overtime.
Chipotle workers have joined a national trend of filing class-action lawsuits against an employer for unpaid overtime. - 
Listen To The Story

Chipotle recently extended paid sick leave, vacation and tuition reimbursement to its hourly workers.

Still, tens of thousands of employees at Chipotle Mexican Grills around the country are not happy with the Denver-based fast casual poster child over how they are paid. Earlier this month, a court in Los Angeles approved a $2 million settlement with over 38,000 plaintiffs for allegations of unpaid overtime, rest breaks and minimum wage. These Chipotle employees and others in more lawsuits across the country have joined a national workplace trend: filing class-action lawsuits against their employer claiming unfair pay.

Brittany Swa 
Brittany Swa  - 

Brittany Swa started working at a Chipotle in Centennial, Colorado, in 2010 as a crew-member. Swa ran the cashier, grilled meat and served customers at $14.50 an hour plus overtime at time-and-a-half. When she was promoted to apprentice manager a few months later, she expected to get more managerial training, but she said the only difference was making the daily morning bank deposit.

“It takes you like 15 minutes,” she says.

On top of that, she was now averaging 55-60 hours a week, she says, and she was now an exempt employee and couldn’t claim overtime.

“If they needed coverage, you’d be the one to cover, or someone calls in sick or they can’t come in that day, you gotta cover.”

Swa is one of the tens of thousands of plaintiffs in settled and ongoing lawsuits from California to New York suing Chipotle for unpaid wages either because they allege they were misclassified as managers or because they worked off the clock, cleaning the store and attending mandatory meetings.

“Cases of this kind are happening with increasing frequency around the country and are not unique to Chipotle,” company spokesman Chris Arnold says.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, federal lawsuits like this one have more than doubled in the past decade.

“It’s very confusing to figure out how to follow this law,” says Lorrie Ray, an attorney at Mountain States Employers Council.

The federal law was written during the Great Depression. Rules on when to pay overtime, for example, are complicated, and there’s a lot of room for error, Ray says.

“Plaintiffs’ attorneys, the employees’ attorneys, became aware that this was sort of lucrative ground for them to cover,” she says. “They started insisting that employers pay their clients for mistakes they’d made under the law.”

There’s another reason, according to Denver University law professor Nantiya Ruan, who is also helping with the apprentice overtime lawsuit against Chipotle. The modern-day workplace is different.

“We expect workers to be on call and working a tremendous amount of hours in a way that we hadn’t been in the '60s and '70s,” she says.

Chipotle has now settled lawsuits with workers in Maryland, California and Florida. In the coming months, wage lawsuits against the company in Colorado, Minnesota and Texas are pending class action certification.

“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VA

As a nonprofit news organization, what matters to us is the same thing that matters to you: being a source for trustworthy, independent news that makes people smarter about business and the economy. So if Marketplace has helped you understand the economy better, make more informed financial decisions or just encouraged you to think differently, we’re asking you to give a little something back.

Become a Marketplace Investor today – in whatever amount is right for you – and keep public service journalism strong. We’re grateful for your support.