By Lisa Baertlein
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc has "lost" about 40 workers in two of its Washington, D.C., restaurants after an internal review showed they were not authorized to work in the United States.
The company said on Friday the workers recently left their jobs and declined to give details on the restaurants affected. At the end of 2010, Chipotle had eight restaurants in Washington, D.C.
On Tuesday, Chipotle co-Chief Executive Monty Moran said "very, very few" employees had left their jobs at the chain's restaurants in the nation's capital and Virginia since getting notice that U.S. immigration officials were auditing its roughly 60 restaurants in the area.
Just a few months ago, a similar federal immigration audit resulted in the firing of 450 undocumented workers at the chain's roughly 50 Minnesota restaurants.
The burrito chain is a Wall Street darling, in part because its labor costs are lower than for most of its peers.
The company, whose motto "Food with Integrity" is based on serving meats from naturally raised animals and other premium food, already has taken a margin hit from worker upheaval in Minnesota and investors worry further disruptions could take a bigger bite out of profits.
Former workers for the chain say Chipotle restaurants, in general, have 20 to 35 workers per unit.
Miguel Bravo, 29, told Reuters he and about 20 other undocumented workers at the Columbia Heights restaurant in Washington, D.C. were replaced with a new crew on Wednesday.
Bravo said that, when he and his co-workers went to the back of the restaurant to ask a company representative why their manager had just been fired, a new crew came in through the front door and took their assigned places in the restaurant.
"We did not look for any conflict and decided to leave," he said. "We understood that this was obviously a dismissal, but they made it seem like we abandoned our jobs."
Bravo said a similar large dismissal of workers happened last week at the Chipotle in the capital's Woodley Park neighborhood.
"As we indicated earlier in the week, we have seen some people leave their jobs since the audits began in Washington, D.C., and Virginia, but not in significant numbers," Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said in an email to Reuters on Friday.
"Over the last couple of days, we lost about 40 employees (many of whom left on their own) at two of our Washington, D.C., restaurants having learned that they are not legally authorized to work in this country," Arnold said.
He declined to say how many workers in total have been displaced in Washington, D.C., and Virginia.
In February, co-CEO Moran told Reuters: "We have always taken this issue very seriously and, over the last five years, we have done a great deal to improve our systems and our document review capabilities and procedures."
At that time, he also told Reuters Chipotle performs two document reviews for each employee hired, one by the hiring manager and another by its human resources department.
Arnold did not respond to a question on Friday about why it was able to identify illegal workers now, when it had systems in place before.
Chipotle, which owns and operates its restaurants, is one of the highest profile employers to come under the scrutiny of ICE since the agency shifted its focus two years ago to probing employer hiring rather than snaring workers in surprise workplace raids.
The shares in Chipotle, which had 26,500 employees at year end, closed down 46 cents, or 0.2 percent, at $252.76 on the New York Stock Exchange.
(Additional reporting by Martha Sanchez-Avila in Los Angeles; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Richard Chang and Andre Grenon)