Chipotle Mexican Grill has been hit with a $1.3 million fine for an estimated 13,253 child labor violations at its more than 50 Massachusetts restaurants, the largest child labor penalty ever issued by the state, Attorney General Maura Healey announced Monday.
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds employed by the fast-food chain worked past midnight and were on the clock more than 48 hours a week, long hours that the teenagers told investigators were preventing them from keeping up with their schoolwork. The company also regularly hired minors without work permits.
The total settlement is nearly $2 million, including penalties for earned sick time violations in which managers granted paid time off only for certain illnesses, as well as for a failure to keep accurate records and pay timely wages. It also includes a voluntary $500,000 payout to a state youth worker fund dedicated to education, enforcement, and training.
“Chipotle is a major national restaurant chain that employs thousands of young people across the country and it has a duty to ensure minors are safe working in its restaurants,” Healey said in a statement. “We hope these citations send a message to other fast food chains and restaurants that they cannot violate our child labor laws and put young people at risk.”
Chipotle, based in Newport Beach, Calif., employs more than 80,000 employees at over 2,500 company-owned stores in the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Child labor violations have been on the rise in recent years as employers struggle to find workers in a historically tight labor market, the attorney general’s office said, prompting companies to hire more teens.
Last summer, employers nationwide hired 25 percent more teens than they did in 2018, following an 8 percent gain the summer before, according to the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
And as the worker shortage drags on — with job openings outnumbering unemployed people for 21 straight months — employers are squeezing more out of their existing staffs, and child labor violations have ticked up accordingly. In Massachusetts, companies were fined more than $270,000 in fiscal year 2017, $366,000 in 2018, and $487,000 last year.
Fast-food restaurants are a major source of these infractions. In August, Qdoba Restaurant Corp., a Mexican chain, was fined $409,000for more than 1,000 child labor violations at its 22 company-owned restaurants around the state involving minors working too late in the evening and too many hours per shift. In December 2017, Burger King paid $250,000 to settle 843 child labor violations at nearly 30 restaurants owned by one franchisee.
Under state law, 16- and 17-year-olds can’t work past 10 p.m. during the week and midnight on non-school nights. Hours are capped at nine a day and 48 a week.
Jenny Fernandez, youth program director at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, known as MassCOSH, said violations stem from a combination of factors: supervisors and young employees not being aware of the law; teenagers being eager to earn more money; and employers trying to get as much out of their workforce as they can. Working too many hours or too late at night can leave teens exhausted, she said, which can make it hard to focus on school and make them vulnerable to accidents on the job.
"Young people always want more hours," Fernandez said. "I don't believe any young person really thinks that they're going to go to work and they're going to be taken advantage of."
Ilannysh Rodriguez worked at Chipotle stores in Harvard Square and Downtown Crossing from the age of 16 to 18 and said she experienced many child labor law violations. Teens under the age of 18, including Rodriguez, routinely worked until 1 a.m., she said, and worked the slicer, which is not allowed. But they didn’t speak up because they feared retaliation from managers, who Rodriguez said would stop scheduling workers they didn’t like. Even Rodriguez, who unlike many of her peers was aware of child labor laws through her job at MassCOSH training young workers, didn’t protest.
“I needed the money,” said Rodriguez, who was saving for college — she’s now a freshman at Brandeis University — as well as helping her mother pay bills. “I was afraid that if I did say anything, they might give me even less hours.”
The Chipotle investigation began after a parent of a 17-year-old employee in Beverly filed a complaint with Healey’s office in 2016. The girl was asked to work past midnight on several occasions and to work shifts of more than nine hours. The family said the long, late hours were having an adverse effect on her health. The family also worried that working so much would cause her grades to slip. The attorney general launched an audit, starting with time cards and paperwork in 2015 and reaching into 2019, and found a pattern of widespread violations.
Chipotle is now in compliance with Massachusetts child labor laws, the attorney general said.
In a statement, the company said: “We are committed to ensuring that our restaurants are in full compliance with all laws and regulations and we believe that in hiring workers beginning at age 16, we can provide younger employees with valuable experiences and provide a compelling work environment."
The restaurant chain stressed its $500,000 donation for education and enforcement of child labor laws and training for young workers in Massachusetts, as well as the benefits it offers all employees, including full tuition reimbursement for 75 types of business and technology degrees.