McDonald’s Labor Problems Have Officially Become a Civil Rights Issue

A new class-action lawsuit claims racist and sexist abuse at fast-food outlets in Virginia.

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Jan 22, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

“There are too many black people in the store.”

That’s what a group of more than a dozen McDonald’s workers, the majority of whom were black, were told before being fired from positions at three chain locations, according to a lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. The suit, which claims both the corporate chain and the franchise owner as defendants, alleges a pattern of racist and sexist abuse suffered by plaintiffs. Nine of the plaintiffs are African American; one is Hispanic.

“All of a sudden, they let me go, for no other reason than I ‘didn’t fit the profile’ they wanted at the store,” said Willie Betts, one of the plaintiffs, in a statement. “I had no idea what they meant by the right profile until I saw everyone else that they fired as well. I worked at McDonald’s for almost five years, I was on time every day at four o’clock in the morning to open the store, and I never had a disciplinary write-up. They took away the only source of income I have to support my family.”

While current and former employees of the fast-food chain have filed class-action lawsuits in the past, this is the first to expand beyond alleging labor violations to claim civil rights abuses. Thanks to a 2014 National Labor Relations Board ruling, McDonald’s, which only owns and operates 10 percent of the nearly 15,000 locations in the U.S., can now be held responsible for labor violations as a joint employer despite its franchise model. In the past, the corporate office has claimed it has no responsibility for how its owner-operated locations are run.

“All too often, corporate franchisors like McDonald’s control everything until there is a problem with their workers. Then, suddenly, they are not responsible and plead ignorance,” Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement. But despite its repeated assertions that it has no control over its workers, all the evidence points to the fact that McDonald’s is indeed the boss,” a belief long held by critics and now supported by the law.

“If the rules are rigged so that giant corporate franchisors reap all the benefits but incur none of the penalties of their franchisees’ actions, the link between work and economic opportunity will be further weakened for millions of working families across our entire economy,” Owens continued.

Michael Simon, the owner of the three franchise locations in South Boston and Clarksville, who is also black, told a local news channel that firing the employees had nothing to do with race.

“At my McDonald’s restaurants, inclusion and diversity are business imperatives,” Simon said in a May release. “I continually strive to maintain an environment in which everyone feels valued and accepted.”

Lisa McComb, director of media relations at McDonald’s, said the company has yet to see the lawsuit but has provided a statement that says, in part, “McDonald’s has a long-standing history of embracing the diversity of employees, independent franchisees, customers and suppliers, and discrimination is completely inconsistent with our values.”

When the firings happened in May, Destiny Betts, who quit after the incident, recounted for the South Boston News & Record the events of a staff meeting where the assistant supervisor said “she was going to get the ghetto and the rachetness out of the store.” The assistant supervisor allegedly continued by saying, “I’m not a racist,” according to Katrina Stanfield, who was among the fired employees.

The complaint also alleges than female employees were subjected to inappropriate and unwanted sexual advances and harassment from a male supervisor. In addition to groping employees’ legs and buttocks, he is said to have texted staff pictures of his genitals and “offered female employees better working conditions in exchange for sexual favors.”

The plaintiffs are receiving support from the ACLU and the Fight for 15, one of the groups that helped organize the ongoing wage protests targeting McDonald’s and other chain restaurants. Oddly, however, the fired workers received raises shortly before being let go, as did the rest of the staff. Managers had their hourly pay increased to $9 an hour, with 25 cents being added to the wages of those who were already making that much. Workers who were at the lowest wage, $7.50, were bumped to $7.74. Virginia does not have a state minimum wage, making the federally required $7.25 an hour the lowest amount non-tipped workers can be paid.

“We asked McDonald’s corporate to help us get our jobs back, but the company told us to take our concerns to the franchisee—the same franchisee that just fired us,” said plaintiff Pamela Marable. “McDonald’s closely monitors everything we do, from the speed of the drive-through line to the way we smile and fold customers’ bags—but when we try to tell the company that we’re facing discrimination, they ignore us and say that it’s not their problem.”