Golden Parachutes for Illegal Chipotle Workers?

By David Seminara on May 20, 2011

If you entered a country illegally, secured work with fraudulent identity documents, and were subsequently terminated once your employer detected the fraud, what would you do? I would slink out very quietly, thanking my lucky stars that the boss didn't immediately turn me over to the police for prosecution or immigration authorities for deportation. But I'm clearly out of step with the modern day sensibilities of illegal immigrants in America, or at least those employed by Chipotle in Washington.

A group of 40 illegal immigrant employees at a Washington, D.C. Chipotle location were recently terminated after the identity documents they submitted to the company were proven to be fraudulent. But rather than go quietly, hoping not to be prosecuted for identity fraud, and/or deported, the workers have staged two rallies to assert their "rights," one of which featured D.C Council member at large Michael Brown as a featured speaker. (See the rally here on YouTube.)

"We will stand with you in solidarity and continue to fight for this," Brown said, through a bullhorn at the rally, before the crowd broke into chants of "where's the integrity?" and "si, se puede." (yes, we can) "So stay strong, keep positive, keep your chins up and the D.C. Council is with you."

After Brown delivered the D.C. Council's benediction to the perpetrators of document and/or identity fraud, and their supporters, an employment attorney named Emily Tulli grabbed the bullhorn to deliver a list of the workers' "demands." Among them were: a public apology from Chipotle for "the way they were treated," two weeks of severance pay, and a letter explaining why they were fired.

I can see Chipotle paying the workers for hours already worked, but given the fact that their fraud could have cost the company a fortune in fines, are they really entitled to an apology and severance pay? What sort of "public apology" did the workers expect from Chipotle? "We're very sorry for following the law?" And the request for the letters of explanation might be the oddest request. I mean, seriously, if they're still unclear on why they were fired, I'm not sure I'd trust them to give me the black beans rather than the pinto beans in my burrito.

The rally also featured a worker who described, in Spanish, how hard she had worked at the restaurant for six years and asked, "Where is that integrity of theirs?" The YouTube video of the event also features a testimony from a customer who vowed not to return to the restaurant, presumably until they begin to hire illegal immigrants again.

Perhaps illegal immigrants who use fraudulent identity documents aren't the best spokespersons for integrity, but as my colleague Jon Feere noted in April, Chipotle has some explaining to do. Their spokesperson, Chris Arnold, recently told WAMU that the workers "provided new documents to verify their work authorization status... All of those documents proved to be fraudulent."

Arnold didn't clarify how the workers got their jobs in the first place, but clearly Chipotle is waking up to the fact that there are serious penalties for hiring illegal workers. That is, if you get caught, which is a big if in our present reality.

Chipotle may be trying to clean up its act, but the larger story here is how deeply ingrained the culture of impunity is in this country for illegal immigrants, particularly in big cities like Washington. How can an elected official stand shoulder to shoulder with law-breakers and tell them that the City Council is "with them?"

But this is America, circa 2011, and in our alternate reality, illegal immigrants who commit document or identity fraud are lauded as working-class heroes who have every right to question the integrity of those who seek to enforce the law.

Note: A call to Chipotle for comment was not immediately returned, but David Meadows, a spokesperson for Councilman Brown, agreed to comment for the record. Meadows said that when Councilman Brown said he "stood with" the protesters he simply was concerned that the company had not provided the fired employees with their full 401k benefits and sick leave entitlements. When asked if the Councilman considered identity fraud a crime, Meadows stated, "I'm not going to get into that." When asked if Brown was at all concerned about identity theft, Meadows declined to comment. He said that they've received no proof that the workers committed identity fraud. (Chipotle has not clarified what type of "fraudulent" documents the workers produced.) Meadows also expressed frustrations with the workers, stating that only 1 of the 40 employees has filed a formal complaint with the D.C. Labor Relations Board, and none has responded to their office's request to submit their names and contact info to Councilman Brown so that he may assist them further.

UPDATE: Chris Arnold, a spokesperson for Chipotle, returned my call and stated that all of the employees received all the compensation they were owed, even prior to the two rallies. "Everyone has been paid everything they're owed, including wages, vacation, sick leave, everything," he said. "We provided each worker with the contact information for a human resources representative, they could call if they felt they weren't fully compensated and only 1 of the workers called, and after speaking to HR, he left satisfied." Arnold went on to clarify that the 40 employees, from 2-3 different Chipotle locations in D.C., all provided new employment verification documents, on their own volition, not at the request of the company, within days of each other. "All of the names and/or Social Security numbers they provided were different from what they had originally provided at the time of hire, and all of them proved to be fraudulent," he said. Arnold noted that the company hired 40 new workers to replace those terminated, and all of the new employees were able to verify that they had the legal right to work in the country. He also stated that he company made the Department of Homeland Security aware of the situation during a recent immigration audit of their D.C. area locations.

So why would 40 workers all provide new, fraudulent, documents right around the same time? A source with knowledge of the situation speculated that perhaps they had all purchased new fake IDs because they'd heard that DHS was about to conduct an audit of Chipotle restaurants and, for some reason, they felt that the new documents they'd purchased were more legitimate than what they'd originally submitted. The source also provided CIS with a copy of the letter Chipotle sent to the D.C. City Council.