Workers who filed for a union election at a Chipotle in Augusta, Maine, accuse the company of seeking to undermine their campaign by closing the restaurant.

The company informed employees of the closure on Tuesday morning, hours before the two sides are set to take part in a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board about a possible election.

“We were unable to provide enough staff for this remote restaurant,” Laurie Schalow, the company’s director of general affairs, said in a statement. Ms Schalow added that “due to these staffing challenges, there is no likelihood of reopening in the foreseeable future, so we have made the decision to permanently close the restaurant”.

A lawyer representing the workers filed a complaint with the labor board, claiming the closure was an illegal act of retaliation.

“I refer to this as Union Busting 101,” said the attorney, Jeffrey Neil Young, who frequently represents unions in the state. “It’s a classic response – the employees decide to organize and the employer says they’re closing the store.”

The labor board will investigate the accusation and file a formal complaint if it finds the accusation has merit, in which case the case will be brought before an administrative law judge. The two parties could reach a settlement beforehand.

A handful of workers at the store walked off the job in mid-June to protest what they said were unsafe conditions resulting from understaffing and insufficient training.

“Not being properly trained to prepare food carries many risks for the preparer and the people eating the food,” said Brandi McNease, a worker involved in the walkout and union campaign. “You worry about knife skills, using dangerous equipment – hot, sharp.”

Within days, the company closed the store to the public as it sought to improve its workforce, including retaining two recruitment experts, according to Ms Schalow. Meanwhile, workers continued to show up at the store, where they received training and helped clean it, but often for fewer hours per week than before.

On June 22, workers filed a petition to hold union elections. The labor board requires that at least 30% of workers indicate their support before ordering one.

The hearing scheduled for Tuesday was to consider the arguments of both sides over the proposed election. Chipotle had claimed in documents that the election should not be held, in part because the store was understaffed and workers eligible to vote would therefore not be fully representative of its eventual workforce.

Mr Young, the lawyer representing the workers, said the closure could chill organizing efforts at other stores in the chain, including those underway at Lansing, Mich.where the workers also filed for a union election, and New York.

“Closing the Augusta store sends a signal to Chipotle workers elsewhere who are involved or who are considering nascent organizational initiatives that if you organize, you could be out of a job,” Young said.

Ms. Schalow, the Chipotle official, said in her statement that the store closure “has nothing to do with union activity.” The company said it closed 13 of about 3,000 sites due to staffing, performance, lease and other business issues in the past 18 months. The most of closures seem to have taken place during the first half of last year.

Chipotle offered Augusta workers four weeks of severance pay based on their hours over the past two weeks, which have generally been less than before the restaurant closed to the public. It has not offered to place the workers in other locations in Maine, the closest of which is about an hour away, according to the company.

Ms McNease said she and her colleagues plan to fight for the store to reopen. “Nobody is giving up now,” she said.

Chipotle is among several service sector employers whose workers have sought to unionize in the past year. About 200 company-owned Starbucks locations have voted to unionize since last fall, as have workers at a Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, a REI store in Manhattan and a Apple Store in Maryland.

The labor committee has formally accused Starbucks to close some stores in retaliation for unionization. The company denied the charges.

Last week Starbucks announced it was closing 16 additional stores due to security issues like crime, which he said have been reflected in incident reports over the past year. The union representing newly unionized workers at Starbucks filed an unfair labor practices lawsuit, accusing the company of closing stores to undermine organizing activity or avoid bargaining with unionized workers.

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By sahil

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