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Joi Sears headshot

Why Doesn't Chipotle Pay Workers a Living Wage?

Words by Joi Sears

Just like the adorable little boy in this Vine video, we love Chipotle! Who doesn’t? The fast-casual Mexican restaurant chain has salsa’d its way into our hearts. Whether it be its clever viral videos, fresh ingredients or commitment to environmentally-friendly farming practices, there is so much to love. Chipotle has crafted an incredibly successful brand image based on progressive food politics, but we can’t help but wonder why this attitude doesn’t extend to paying its workers a living wage.

Food with integrity

Chipotle’s motto is “Food with Integrity." The company sources meat from animals raised without antibiotics and hormones, has a commitment to local, organic produce and uses dairy products free of added hormones. Chipotle goes to incredible lengths to offer a menu that minimizes artificial ingredients, pesticides, antibiotics and GMOs. The chain’s devotion to sustainable, ethical, higher-quality ingredients consistently wins it both good publicity and customer loyalty.

However, there is one area where Chipotle falls short. The company does not pay its workers a livable wage. It’s true that most fast food restaurants get flack for low wages. (In fact, none of the major fast food chains actually pay their workers a living wage). But we have come to expect a little more from Chipotle when it comes to ethical business practices.

Minimum wage vs. living wage

According to Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold, Chipotle's average crew member makes more than $10 an hour, a figure that would equate to about $21,000 to $22,000 annually for someone who works 40 hours a week. Although this figure is slightly more than the average pay of $18,235 listed on Chipotle's website, it still doesn’t quite make the cut.

Imagine living in a city like Boston, New York or Los Angeles. A mere $10 an hour is a far cry from the average $13.47 per hour needed to live in those cities, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator. This amount, of course, doesn’t even factor in children or other dependents. Even in the poorest county in the nation, a single adult working full-time needs to make very near that figure, at $9.52 an hour.

Meanwhile, Chipotle’s co-CEOs, Steve Ells and Monty Moran, are the highest paid in the fast food industry, making between $28 million and $29 million each in salary, bonuses and stock options last year. For each CEO, that's the equivalent of more than $13,000 an hour -- 1,300 times more than their employees earn.

Chipotle’s position

It is for this reason that it may not come as much of a surprise that the CEOs have stayed silent about the wage issue. Up until last year, the company was a member of the National Restaurant Association, an advocacy group which has fought vigorously against federal and state increases to minimum wage, among several other issues like health care and immigration reform.

Although it is unclear why the company’s membership to the association has lapsed, we can only hope the company is preparing to take a stand to support better worker pay. But the fact of the matter is: Up until now, Chipotle has refused to take a position.

"We have never taken a position on the minimum wage and believe that a minimum wage or starting wage tells only part of the story," Arnold wrote in an email to Fast Company. "We already pay above minimum wage and offer benefits that are more than competitive.”

It is true that the company offers competitive benefits, including paid time off when employees get sick or take a vacation. Chipotle also offers tuition reimbursement. The benefits, which were set to kick in starting July 1, will be used to help recruit more high school and college students, the company’s "target demographic" for restaurant staff. However, some labor advocates argue that benefits do not necessarily replace higher wages.

Company values

Chipotle is known for putting company values front and center. It would be a good company to adopt the kind of wages that could push the whole industry forward.

"[Chipotle] could choose to be a leader and to come out in front,” said Irene Tung, a senior policy researcher with the National Employment Law Project. “It would have an impact on the industry, if Chipotle were to come out and make an announcement that they were going to raise their wages for workers and that it was because they see themselves as a progressive company that cares about the integrity of where their food comes from, as well as their own workers,”

Instead the company, in some cases, is fighting against fair wages. This year, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that a Chipotle in St. Louis illegally fired a long-time worker, Patrick Leeper, for taking part in the Ferguson protests and discussing his wages with others. Leeper says he was making "$8 and some change an hour" after three years, struggling to get by while he only received a 10-cent raise every six months. Chipotle also currently faces allegations of wage theft in Colorado and Minnesota, where employees were allegedly forced to work off the clock.

Of course, raising wages for Chipotle’s more than 48,500 employees is a complicated issue. Even if the company’s CEOs gave up their entire salaries, there still wouldn’t be enough money to fully compensate its workers. The other options would be to raise prices, improve efficiency or reduce employee turnover. Whatever the choice may be, we can only encourage Chipotle to live up to the company’s values and pay its workers a living wage.

Image credit: Flickr/Jeepers Media

Joi Sears headshotJoi Sears

Joi M. Sears is the Founder and Creative Director of Free People International, a social enterprise which specializes in offering creative solutions to the world's biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking and social innovation.

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