McDonald’s sued over claims workers were fired from store with ‘too many black people’
Ten former McDonald’s workers in Virginia have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the fast-food chain, claiming that supervisors threw racial and sexual slurs at them, then fired them because the stores had “too many black people”.
The employees say they overheard their supervisors talk about the “need to get the ghetto out of the store”, and “get rid of the niggers and the Mexicans”. Out of the 10 plaintiffs – all of whom were fired in May 2014 – nine are African American and one is Hispanic. They filed a complaint in the US district court for the western district of Virginia against McDonald’s, as well as Michael Simon, the owner of the three franchises where they worked.
McDonald’s said it will comment after it has seen the lawsuit. It said: “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. 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 was filed at 9am on Thursday. McDonald’s has generally maintained a “hands-off” policy towards franchisees. Last year, however, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that McDonald’s could be held liable for labor violations at its franchises.
Staff members say they were told they were good workers, but that they “didn’t fit the profile” of desirable employees. Willie Betts, who had worked at McDonald’s for five years as a cook, said he was never late and did not have any disciplinary write-ups.
“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 Betts. “I had no idea what they meant by the right profile – until I saw everyone else that they fired as well.”
In 2013, Soweva became the franchisee in charge of the McDonald’s restaurants where the plaintiffs worked. About 15 black workers, including nine of the plaintiffs, were fired from Soweva, Simon’s franchise company, on 12 May 2014. The new ownership said that since the majority of the restaurants’ employees were black, “the ratio was off in each of the stores”, the complaint alleges.
After they were fired, the plaintiffs called McDonald’s corporateheadquarters to complain about their termination, and the racial discrimination they say they experienced. “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.
The plaintiffs say they hope McDonald’s will be held accountable for the actions of its franchisee. McDonald’s exercises some degree of control over what its franchisees do when it comes to service, branding and uniforms. When it comes to wages and treatment of employees, however, the company says such decisions are up to the franchisees.
“McDonald’s closely monitors everything we do, from the speed of the drive-thru 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,” said Marable.
There are some precedents that could favor the plaintiffs. In December, the National Labor Relations board found that 86 of 291 workers’ complaints against McDonald’s as joint employer have a legal merit. As a result, the board filed charges against McDonald’s for violating workers’ rights in 13 cities.
About 90% of US McDonald’s restaurants are “independently owned and operated by franchisees”, according to McDonald’s. According to the complaint, one supervisor made inappropriate comments, touched female employees on their legs and buttocks, sent female employees pictures of his genitalia and “offered female employees better working conditions in exchange for sexual favors.”
Katrina Stanfield worked for McDonald’s for year and a half before she was fired. First, she started as a cashier but was soon promoted to a manager, a position she held when she was terminated. She was never written up but says she was constantly abused.
“My supervisor would regularly harass me and other non-white workers at the store,” Stanfield said on a press call on Thursday. According to her, that supervisor, a woman, would make rude comments about her hair and looks. Echoing the complaint filed, she said that during staff meeting, the supervisor loudly said “we need to get the ghetto out of the store”.
“[It] made me feel uncomfortable,” said Stanfield. “My other supervisor would regularly harass female workers at the store and made inappropriate comments about their bodies to the men at the store. He would touch workers inappropriately and send workers pictures of himself naked.”
The harassment, according to the complaint, did not start when the new owners took over. The employees promoted and rehired by the new owner had a history of such behavior. The female supervisor, the complaint alleges, has been fired by the previous franchise owner TCR Enterprises. She was allegedly let go for terminating Brian Tucker, one of the plaintiffs, for complaining about her boyfriend at the time who also worked at the McDonald’s. After complaining to TCR Enterprises, Tucker was rehired with reduction in pay and no compensation for the two months he was unemployed, according to the complaint filed Thursday.
When Soweva took over the franchise in December 2013, one man was appointed the supervisor of all three restaurants. The male supervisor rehired Lambert as “assistant supervisor”. Five months later, in May 2014, nine of the plaintiffs were let go.
Stanfield says the new owner, Michael Simon, met with her and let her go. She was so shocked she didn’t even ask any questions, she said. “He also told me he would give me a good reference because I was a good worker, but being a good worker didn’t matter. I was getting fired for being black,” she said. “After losing my job at McDonald’s I really struggled to find work and was unemployed for nearly five months.”
According to the complaint, Soweva contested unemployment benefits for all terminated employees. Stanfield, who is 32 years old and a mother of two, slowly began to fall behind on her bills and feared that she might lose her home. “It was really difficult for me to be unable to support my family. I couldn’t even buy my children clothes for school,” she said on the call.
Christina Chadwick is the only plaintiff who was not terminated, but quit on her own. Chadwick, who is hispanic but not of Mexican descent, was often referred to as the “dirty Mexican” or “hot Mexican”, the complaint alleges. Tired of the abuse, Chadwick quit at the beginning of July 2014.
While none of the plaintiffs have participated in the protests for higher wages and the right to unionize prior to being fired, they believe that had they been part of the union all of this could’ve been avoided.
“If we had the right to a union, we would have been able to demand that our supervisors stop harassing us because of our race or for being a woman, and wouldn’t have been left to fend for ourselves after being fired,” says Stanfield, who hopes that the complaint filed on her behalf will encourage other workers to come forward. Stanfield says that she herself called McDonald’s corporate hotline after she was terminated, leaving a detailed message, but never heard back.
So that similar complaints don’t go ignored, the Fight for $15 movement launched a toll-free national hotline for McDonald’s workers: the number is (855) 729-2869.
“This lawsuit is Exhibit A for why workers at McDonalds need the right to a union. The alleged details of discrimination are horrific, but what is also disturbing is that the workers had no place to turn,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “When they brought their complaints to McDonald’s corporate, they were told to take their case to the very franchisee who fired them.”
The lawyers representing the terminated workers believe that in addition to the franchisee owner, the McDonald’s corporation can also be held accountable for both happened before and after the employees were terminated.
“Given its control and authority over franchises, we believe that McDonald’s could have put policies in place to stop what the plaintiffs endured from happening, or at least made it right after the employees brought it to their attention,” said Paul Smith, attorney with Patterson Harkavy LLP, the firm representing the workers.
McDonald’s does exercise control over its franchises, insists Smith. The corporation issues number of policies that the franchisers have to follow ranging from how to use the computer systems to how and when to schedule workers. Smith also points out that franchise owners, managers and supervisors undergo “rigorous training on how to follow corporate directives on matters that include discrimination, diversity and harassment.”
“McDonald’s corporate is apparently trying to have best of both worlds … all the control and profit, and none of the responsibility,” he says. “Unfortunately for McDonald’s, we don’t think the law works that way.”