Food service workers lobby for earned sick time

While Chipotle temporarily closed its restaurants Monday, some former employees of the popular chain took the opportunity to connect the brand’s recent food safety problems to the need for earned sick time policies in the Twin Cities.

Bracing subzero wind chills, former Chipotle employee Rod Adams stood with a group of other current and former fast food workers outside of one closed Minneapolis location near the University of Minnesota to tell his story.

“I was visibly sick,” Adams said. “But the issue was not if I could go home, it was how long I could stay.”

Despite needing to leave his position every 15 minutes to take care of himself, Adams was told he couldn’t leave because the restaurant was short-staffed.

“If you leave, you lose your job,” he said, so he continued to cut lettuce and prepare other fresh ingredients for serving.

“That’s not right,” Adams said.

Chipotle restaurants across the nation last year dealt with a series of food-related illnesses among customers, beginning with July’s E. Coli outbreak in Seattle. A December outbreak of norovirus that sickened about 140 people in Boston was traced back to a sick employee and improper food handling.

Some Chipotle locations in Minnesota experienced salmonella contaminations in August and September, but that problem was blamed on shipments of bad tomatoes.

The company instituted new paid sick time policies in January as part of its response to the outbreaks. Adams said this means sick workers no longer have to choose between earning their paychecks and taking care of their families.

“Chipotle has taken a crucial step forward in this process,” he said. “This needs to be paid attention to by all businesses in Minneapolis.”

Chipotle has also undertaken comprehensive food safety reviews to ensure that its restaurants and products are as safe as possible, Founder and Chairman Steve Ells said.

“I believe our restaurants are safer today than they have ever been,” Ells said.

Chipotle’s brief restaurant shutdown on Monday allowed its employees to focus on the new food safety measures, but it also allowed the company to close the doors on a troubled chapter in which it dealt with several lawsuits and watched sales plunge by 36 percent at stores that had been open for at least 13 months.

Adams said this transition highlighted a chance for other businesses to be proactive by offering their employees earned sick time.

“Luckily for Chipotle they’re a large enough entity to repair this problem,” Adams said, but emphasized that businesses need to be on the front end of the issue in the future.

The group also called for Minneapolis to push harder on citywide earned sick time policies.

K.B. Brown, a Chipotle manager from 2011-2014, urged the city to come up with paid sick leave mandates for all businesses, but said any plan should not harm businesses in the process.

“It’s like a hybrid vehicle,” Brown said. “It costs a little more on the front end, but saves more on the back end.”

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman have come out in favor of citywide paid sick leave proposals, and both cities have formed task forces to study earned sick time.

The 19-member Minneapolis panel will present to the City Council later this month, and the St. Paul panel will deliver recommendations to be considered by the St. Paul City Council in June. The task forces will look at the extent to which businesses may be overburdened by new regulations or adversely impacted by paid sick leave requirements.

St. Paul has started ensuring that city employees can accrue sick time and is now talking with private business owners in an effort to come up with an effective citywide policy.

Both mayors spoke last week about the importance of the paid sick leave discussion.

“Clearly people want a level playing field, but it’s also a public health issue,” Hodges said.

Coleman said St. Paul needs to lead by example while also working to understand the concerns of businesses.

Twenty-four cities in the U.S. have laws regarding paid sick time on the books. The same is true for the states of Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, and Oregon. Montgomery County, Maryland, is the only county with earned sick time laws.

Minnesota currently has no law requiring private employers to grant employees sick leave, paid or unpaid, although some employers offer it as a popular benefit.

Both the Minnesota House of Representatives and the Minnesota Senate introduced legislation last February that would require all Minnesota employers to provide employees with paid sick and safe time, but the House bill was never acted upon and the Senate bill died in committee.

In the meantime, Adams said businesses should take independent action and institute earned sick time to avoid troubles and protect workers.

“Businesses should never wait for a crisis to occur to accept that a problem exists,” Adams said. “Creating a better Minneapolis starts today and not months down the road.”

Andrew Heiser is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.