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Chipotle closes Augusta restaurant amid workers' union drive

Nicole Ogrysko
Maine Public
A group of employees and supporters gathered outside the Chipotle Mexican Grill on Tuesday evening to protest the company's decision to close the location. Employees say the closure is a textbook example of union busting.

Chipotle Mexican Grill has closed its Augusta location on the same day the restaurant's workers say they planned to appear before a federal board for a hearing on their unionization drive.

The workers said they received an email early Tuesday morning from the company, informing them of the decision to close. The email from Lisa Zeppetelli, people experience partner for Chipotle in the Northeast, was made public by the Maine AFL-CIO later that afternoon.

"It was a slap in the face," said James Forbes, an employee at the Augusta store.

On Tuesday evening, a group of employees and supporters gathered outside the closed Augusta restaurant to protest the decision. They say they will fight to reopen the store.

Brandi McNease, another employee at the Augusta location and a member of Chipotle Workers United, accused the company of union busting. And she said Chipotle retaliated against them for organizing.

"What are you going to do when you're scared and you can't win? You're going to shut it down and hope for the best," McNease said. "That's not acceptable. No, we're going to protest. We're going to fight. We're going to ask for more community support. We'll keep showing up and calling and making noise until somebody does something."

The Augusta store has been closed to the public since June 17 due to staffing challenges, Laurie Schalow, Chipotle's chief corporate affairs officer, said Tuesday in a statement.

Employees at the Augusta store filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to unionize as Chipotle United back on June 22.

The company said it went through "extraordinary lengths" to keep the Augusta location open and hired two recruiting experts in effort to resolve staffing problems there.

"Despite these efforts, we have been unable to adequately staff this remote restaurant with crew and continue to be plagued with excessive call-outs and lack of availability from existing staff," Schalow said. "We have had an even more difficult time finding managers to lead the restaurant. Because of these ongoing staffing challenges, there is no probability of reopening in the foreseeable future, so we’ve made the decision to permanently close the restaurant."

Augusta workers will be paid through the end of the week and will receive four weeks of severance for the hours that they had planned to work, according to the email from Zeppetelli. The company said it will also help the chain's employees find new jobs.

Chipotle employees in Augusta were the first in the nation to launch an effort to organize. Workers on Tuesday said training was poor and the work environment was hostile, and the location had trouble keeping managers.

The chain's workers said they believed Chipotle closed their location, in part, to send a message to workers at other locations that may be thinking of organizing.

"I feel like they just threw this out there and hoped that they could pay us off with severance and help us find new jobs and we'd all go quietly," McNease said. "And the reason we're in this mess is because we are not quiet."

The employees have filed two unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board against Chipotle.