James Kennedy, who served burritos at Chipotle's in Havertown, was fired last year after he tweeted about wages and circulated a petition asking managers to allow workers to take their breaks.
Now the fast-food eatery has to offer to hire him back, pay him back wages, and post signs that some of its employee communication policies, including its former social guidelines, violated labor law.
Kennedy's case became part of a sweep of lawsuits before the National Labor Relations Board as it sorted out what types of social media communications were covered under federal labor laws protecting the rights of workers acting together to improve wages and conditions.
On Monday, Administrative Law Judge Susan A. Flynn found that Chipotle's social media policy violated the National Labor Relations Act.
"If you want to tweet something about your personal experience at your job, do it," he said Tuesday, cautioning against libel and slander. "Tweet at your bosses and your bosses' bosses.
"A lot of times your bosses will sugarcoat what's going on" to their bosses, Kennedy, said. "Doing it publicly really puts the spotlight on them."
A Chipotle's spokesman and Kathleen J. Mowry, the Colorado-based lawyer who handled the case for Chipotle's, could not immediately be reached for comment.
A manager testified in the case that she fired Kennedy, a three-time war vet, after a heated argument on the petition, saying she was concerned that he would become violent. In her opinion, the judge dismissed that concern.
It's been a tough year for Chipotle. Chipotle's stock fell as profits dropped due to outbreaks of norovirus and E. coli that sickened dozens in 2015. The U.S. Attorney's Office in California has broadened a criminal investigation into company-wide food safety matters. And last Wednesday, a Chipotle's near Boston was closed when an employee was diagnosed with norovirus.
"I don't think our Chipotle's in Havertown ever sickened anyone," Kennedy said.
These days, Kennedy, 38, of Upper Darby, works at American Airlines in a unionized position as a fleet service agent, directing airliners in and out of their berths at Philadelphia International Airport.
"Working with an actual union versus an at-will shop like Chipotle's is like night and day," Kennedy said.
"The culture of fear at Chipotle is not to be found at American Airlines," where, he said, grievances are handled immediately and easily at the lowest levels.
In January 2015, after a customer tweeted out thanks for a freebie at Chipotle's, Kennedy tweeted back, "@ChipotleTweets, nothing is free, only cheap #labor. Crew members only make $8.50hr how much is that steak bowl really?"
Kennedy's boss showed him a social media policy that prohibited "disparaging, false . . . statements about . . . Chipotle."
The boss asked Kennedy to remove the tweet, which he did.
Two weeks later, on Feb. 17, 2015, he was fired after he circulated a petition about workers' inability to take their breaks.
Kennedy's case was taken up by the Pennsylvania Workers Organizing Committee, involved with the group working to increase wages for fast-food workers. It filed complaints on Kennedy's behalf, and the NLRB, represented by David Rodriguez, agreed that Kennedy had been wronged. The case then went to an administrative law judge.
The judge's decision requires Chipotle to pay Kennedy lost wages and benefits. The wage payment won't amount to much, Kennedy said, because he found the airport job in about a month.
But, he said, the new job doesn't include one benefit offered to Chipotle workers: a daily free meal. He said his payment will have to somehow incorporate that benefit.
If Chipotle complies with the court order, Kennedy said, he'd be willing to accept his food benefit in meal vouchers from Chipotle's.
"You cannot deny that their food is delicious," he said, "but their labor policies were atrocious."