Mexican food giant Chipotle has been accused of closing a store in Maine where staff were planning to unionize.
The New York Times reports workers at the store in Augusta had filed for a union election, but have since been told the restaurant is going to close.
Chipotle told staff of the closure Tuesday, July 19.
This was just hours before the two sides were scheduled to take part in a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board about the possible election.
Chipotle says the restaurant is closing due to staffing problems.
Laurie Schalow, the company’s chief corporate affairs officer, said in a statement: “We have been unable to adequately staff this remote restaurant.”
She added: “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.”
The matter could well end up in court, according to a lawyer representing the staff who called the move “Union Busting 101”
A charge has been filed with the labor board.
Lawyer Jeffrey Neil Young said: “I’m referring to this as Union Busting 101.
“It’s a classic response — employees decide to organize and the employer says it’s closing the store.
”The labor board will investigate the charge and issue a formal complaint if it finds merit in the accusation, at which point the case would go before an administrative law judge.”
The two sides could reach a settlement beforehand.
The store has seen a handful of workers walk out in June in protest to what they called unsafe conditions, which stemmed from understaffing and a lack of training.
Worker Brandi McNease said: “Not being properly trained to prepare food has a lot of risks to both the preparer and the people eating the food.
“You worry about knife skills, using equipment that is dangerous — hot, sharp.
Schalow said the company had closed the store to the public while it looking to improve the staff issues, as well as retaining two recruitment experts.
The union election petition was filed in mid-June.
The labor board needs at least 30 percent of workers to pledge their support before the election is ordered.
The hearing was meant to hear arguments from both sides would be heard.
Chipotle argued the election should not go ahead, because the restaurant was understaffed and so those eligible to vote did not represent the eventual workforce.
Young, the lawyer representing the workers, said the closing could put off organizing efforts at other stores in the chain, including in New York City.
He said: “By closing the Augusta store, it’s signaling to Chipotle workers elsewhere who are involved in or contemplating nascent organizational drives that if you organize, you might be out of job.”
Schalow, the Chipotle official, stressed the closure “has nothing to do with union activity.”
The company said it had closed 13 locations out of about 3,000 because of staffing issues, performance, lease agreements and other business reasons over the past 18 months.
Staff in Augusta have been offered four weeks of severance pay based on their hours over the past two weeks, which have been lower due to it being closed.
It has not offered them positions in other restaurants in other parts of the state, around an hour away.