Employers Under Fire: Chipotle Gets ICE’d

By: Ashley Behre


The Chipotle Mexican Grille fast-food chain was forced to fire over 450 undocumented workers in Minnesota this January after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) audited its I-9 employment forms.[1] The I-9 form is used to verify a prospective worker’s identity and eligibility for employment in the United States.[2]

The probe into the restaurant’s hiring practices revealed “suspect documents” that left the employer no choice but to discharge hundreds of employees unable to provide legal documentation.[3] Despite its requirement for records demonstrating employment eligibility, the company stated that “some of [its] employees may, without [its] knowledge, be unauthorized workers.”[4] The firings occurred throughout the chain’s 50 store locations in Minnesota, reducing the company’s workforce by more than one-third in that area.[5]

In response to their discharges, a group of former Chipotle employees has filed a class-action lawsuit against the restaurant alleging violations of Minnesota state law, which requires an employer to pay all wages due within 24 hours of an employee’s discharge.[6] The fired employees claim they did not receive their back pay, which includes wages, bonuses, and accrued vacation time, within the specified time period.[7] Chipotle has vowed to vigorously defend the suit and has described the claims as “without merit” because the company has paid the employees all wages owed.[8]

The inspection into Chipotle’s hiring practices represents a shift in focus for immigration officials examining employment in the United States.  Crackdowns against employees characteristic of the Bush Administration have been replaced by “I-9 audits” targeting employers.[9] By focusing on a company’s personnel policy rather than an individual employee’s legal status, ICE aims to place the burden on employers to take corrective action and assume responsibility for unlawful hiring practices.[10]

Employers have borne the brunt of the Obama Administration’s immigration policy, under which ICE recently totaled nearly double the number of employer audits than the previous fiscal year.[11] Though it is unclear why ICE has singled out Chipotle, the fast-growing business faces continuing obstacles as the investigation into its staff has spread to its Virginia and Washington, D.C. restaurant locations.[12] It will be interesting to see how effective this shift in focus is in eradicating immigration issues in the United States and whether forcing employers to bear the burden of immigration policy is the proper course of action.

[1] See Paul Walsh, Chipotle Says it Fired 450 in Minnesota After Audit, Star Tribune, Feb. 22, 2011, available at http://www.startribune.com/business/116676199.html.

[2] See U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Servs., Form I-9 CNMI, Employment Eligibility Verification, Dep’t of Homeland Sec. (June 27, 2010), http://www.uscis.gov/files/form/i-9_cnmi.pdf.

[3] See Walsh, supra note 1.

[4] Id.

[5] The company employed about 1,200 workers in Minnesota prior to the audit.  Id.

[6] See Mike Hughlett, Chipotle Workers Sue, Say Checks Were Late, Star Tribune, Feb. 3, 2011, available at http://www.startribune.com/business/115234749.html?elr=KArks:DCiU1OiP:DiiUiD3aPc:_Yyc:aULPQL7PQLanchO7DiU.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] See Miriam Jordan, Chipotle Under Scrutiny by ICE, Wall St. J., Feb. 8, 2011, available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704422204576130813007160084.html.  More than 2,700 companies were audited in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010, resulting in a record $7 million in civil fines of businesses employing illegal workers.  Id.

[12] See id.

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