Workers Sue McDonald's For Discrimination, Opening New Front In Franchise Fight

01/22/2015 11:18 am ET | Updated Jan 22, 2015
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A group of former McDonald's workers from Virginia are suing their stores for racial discrimination and sexual harassment -- and they're taking the rare step of naming the world's foremost fast-food company as a defendant in the suit.

The 10 plaintiffs -- nine of whom are African-American, and one of whom is Hispanic -- say they were wrongfully fired last year and replaced with mostly white workers because their managers believed there had been "too many black people [working] in the store." The lawsuit (viewable here) alleges that women were harassed and groped and that minorities were subjected to racist taunts. It also claims that managers referred to one restaurant as "the ghetto store."

Although it's usually just franchisees that are sued under discrimination claims, in this case the plaintiffs are arguing that McDonald's itself should be held responsible for the actions inside a franchised store. They say the fast-food giant should have to pay damages because it sets companywide policies and has the power to enforce them.

"In order to maximize its profit, McDonald's Corporate has control over nearly every aspect of its restaurants' operations," the lawsuit asserts. "Though nominally independent, franchised McDonald's restaurants are predominantly controlled by McDonald's."

The plaintiffs in the suit have received legal assistance from the NAACP and the group Fight for $15, which advocates on behalf of fast-food workers. According to the suit, the plaintiffs had a combined 50 years working at McDonald's restaurants, 25 of them accrued by a 53-year-old shift manager who lost her job in July. The rest of the workers lost their jobs in a mass termination in May.

As the South Boston (Virginia) News & Record reported at the time, a total of 17 workers were abruptly fired from three McDonald's restaurants in the area. All three locations were run by Michael Simon, owner of Soweva, the company that franchised the stores. At the time, workers told the paper they were informed they "didn't fit the profile" that the company was looking for in its restaurants.

"Most, though not all, of the terminated employees are African-American," the paper noted. "Most of the workers who remain on the job at the local McDonald’s also are black. So, too, is [Soweva owner] Simon."

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs say that their white supervisors wanted to drop black workers from the payrolls because the stores were "too dark," in a phrase attributed to one manager.

"I had no idea what they meant by the right profile until I saw everyone else that they fired as well," Willie Betts, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement Thursday. "They took away the only source of income I have to support my family."

Simon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement at the time of the firings, Simon denied that race was a factor, saying his company "has a strict policy of prohibiting any form of discrimination or harassment in hiring, termination or any other aspect of employment."

In the lawsuit, the workers allege that when they brought their concerns to McDonald's corporate, the company "took no actions to remedy" the firings. The workers are now seeking damages from the chain under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or sex.

"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," Pamela Marable, another plaintiff, said in a statement this week.

“We have not seen the lawsuit, and cannot comment on its allegations, but will review the matter carefully," McDonald's said in a statement Thursday.

"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," the company's statement continued. "McDonald’s and our independent owner-operators share a commitment to the well-being and fair treatment of all people who work in McDonald’s restaurants.”

The lawsuit in Virginia is just the latest salvo in a broader fight against the franchise model. McDonald's franchises roughly 90 percent of its stores, leaving the day-to-day operations to individual franchisees like Soweva. Since the franchisees run the stores, they're the ones that tend to get sued when labor law is broken. That's a major upside of the franchise model for companies like McDonald's.

But unions and worker groups have been arguing in court and before agencies like the National Labor Relations Board that big chains such as McDonald's should be held accountable for the working conditions inside the stores that bear their names.

Until now, that generally hasn't been the case. But that could be changing on some fronts. The NLRB's general counsel, for instance, has named McDonald's as a "joint employer" alongside several of its franchisees accused of violating labor law during the fast-food strikes. If the agency were to view the workers as employed under one big umbrella -- rather than by hundreds or thousands of individual franchisees -- it would be much easier for the workers to unionize en masse. As it is, the fact that McDonald's workers are technically employed by different franchisees means they would have to be unionized store by individual store.

Several lawsuits currently seek to hold McDonald's responsible for wage theft allegedly committed by its franchisees. As with the discrimination complaint in Virginia, the plaintiffs in those suits argue that McDonald's ultimately exerts control over the operations inside individual stores, and that it should be held accountable when the law is broken.

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