By Wendi C. Thomas, Writing Fellow, Center for Community Change
What bothers Brittany James most about the 15-hour days she worked for Chipotle Mexican Grill isn’t the overtime pay she says she was due but never received.
What James will never get back is the time.
The birthday celebrations she missed, vacations cancelled, plans hastily dropped, all because of what she called the unreasonable demands made on her time by the restaurant.
James is one of more than 60 plaintiffs in a 2012 collective action lawsuit alleging that the fast-food restaurant chain misclassified apprentices, like her, as overtime-exempt managers.
Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold would not comment on James’ claims, saying the company doesn’t discuss pending legal actions.
“I was required to work 50 hours minimum and definitely during review time, it went up to 65 hours,” said James, 25, who lives in Parker, CO., outside of Denver.
Being labeled as a manager even when her duties were identical to those of hourly line workers meant James wasn’t eligible for overtime pay.
It is estimated that more than 5 million workers share James’ situation – they are technically classified as managers, but are exempt from overtime because they make more than $23,660 per year.
In June, the federal government announced plans to raise the overtime threshold from $23,660 to $50,440. It would be the first increase in the threshold since 1975.
Women, particularly single mothers and women of color, will benefit the most from the change, says a new study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the advocacy group MomsRising. The study, released Tuesday, finds that 54 percent of the workers newly eligible for overtimes would be women.
“The women workers who are typically the most economically vulnerable to low income and high unemployment … these are the very women who are most likely to gain coverage under this new rule,” Women’s Policy Research economist Heidi Hartmann said on a conference call with reporters.
James, whose lawsuit is winding its way through the courts, says she was forced to do her job and the job of employees who quit and weren’t replaced.
She said it wasn’t unusual for her to start work at 6:30 a.m. so she could chop lettuce, grill chicken in addition to making guacamole, scheduling line workers, handling administrative duties and writing performance evaluations. She often wouldn’t leave until 10 p.m
Her classification as a manager also meant James’ time off wasn’t her own. She recalled one incident when the restaurant’s sump pump went out overnight and all the food in the coolers spoiled.
“My husband and I had a trip planned and I couldn’t go … I had to run around in my own car with my own gas to run around and get food” to restock the restaurant, James said. She has since left the restaurant and now stays at home and cares for her 2-year-old daughter.
“Even on weekends, you can’t be an hour away because if something happens at your store, you have to be there. If you’re not there, you’re the one who’s in trouble, not the (worker) who didn’t show up,” she said.
In September 2012, James got a call from her boss, telling her she was fired. James says at the time she was overwhelmed with work because she was doing her job, plus that of others who had been fired but not replaced.
“I didn’t not receive any help with what I was expected to do and on top of that, I feel that my time was eaten up by Chipotle … I feel like I was set up for failure,” she said.
Juno Turner, a partner with Outten & Golden which is representing James and the others in the lawsuit, said that a change in the overtime threshold rule might mean that overtime eligible employees would work fewer hours, freeing them up to spend more time with their families or pursue an education.
“You don’t think of a middle manager as someone who is earning $20,000 (a year) but they can be under the current regulations,” Turner said.
Even though the new guidelines come too late for James, she’s hopeful about what it will mean for people who are where she was.
“I still know a lot of people who are on a salaried position for Chipotle and I have other friends who are in salaried jobs at other restaurants,” James said.
“It would be nice to see them compensated for the hours they were actually working.”