McDonald’s workers sue fast food giant over racial and sexual discrimination

SOUTH BOSTON, Va. – McDonald’s workers who were fired last year after being told, “There are too many black people [working] in the store,” filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the company Thursday alleging a widespread pattern of racial and sexual discrimination and harassment at three stores in Virginia. 

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia by 10 former workers at three Clarkesville and South Boston McDonald’s stores, alleges the company last May simultaneously fired more than a dozen black workers who, “didn’t fit the profile” desired at its restaurants. The highest-ranking managers had told workers that it was “too dark” in the restaurants and that they “need to get the ghetto out of the store.” 

“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 plaintiff Willie Betts, who was a cook at the South Boston McDonald’s until he was fired last May. 

“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,” he said.

The suit comes as McDonald’s faces increased scrutiny over its role as an employer at franchised stores and carries significant implications in the ongoing debate about whether the fast-food giant can be held responsible for the well-being of employees at its restaurants.

Despite McDonald’s repeated assertions that it is not the boss at these stores, federal officials late last year filed a dozen complaints charging the company was indeed a joint employer responsible for labor violations at stores across the country. The workers’ suit filed Thursday names both McDonald’s Corp. and McDonald’s USA and franchise owner Michael Simon and his company, Soweva Co., as defendants.

The complaint contends that McDonald’s Corp. has control over “nearly every aspect of its restaurants’ operations,” and is therefore responsible for the harassment and discrimination workers faced. Several workers contacted McDonald’s Corp. to report the discrimination, but the company did nothing.

The complaint charges that the McDonald’s Corp. representative who conducted regular inspection visits at the stores had learned of the terminations soon after they occurred on May 12, but took no action. And the company did nothing after a local paper reported on the firings.

“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, a crewmember at the South Boston McDonald’s who was fired in May.

“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,” she said 

Highest-ranking supervisors regularly called the Clarkesville McDonald’s the “ghetto store,” referred to black workers as “bitch,” “ghetto,” and “ratchet,” and disciplined them for rule infractions that were forgiven when committed by white workers, the complaint alleges.

One supervisor routinely touched female workers on their legs and buttocks, discussed sexual activities with female workers and offered better working conditions in exchange for sexual favors, according to the complaint.

Several workers contacted the South Boston chapter of the NAACP last year to report the harassment and discrimination. Leaders of the chapter met with the workers and then contacted the Fight for $15 movement for help. Both organizations are providing ongoing support to the workers in connection with Thursday’s suit. 

“The treatment of these McDonald’s workers seems like it’s out of another era, but sadly the racism is a reality they are confronting today,” said the Rev. Kevin Chandler, president of the South Boston Chapter of the NAACP and vice president of the NAACP Virginia State Conference.

“The South Boston NAAACP will stand with these fired workers until McDonald’s takes responsibility for the inhumane treatment these workers faced in its stores.”

In response to the suit, the Fight for $15 movement launched a toll-free national hotline Thursday for McDonald’s workers across the country to report incidences of harassment and abuse at the workplace. The number is (855) 729-2869.

“This is a problem that goes far beyond these stores in Virginia – it’s a problem with McDonald’s business model itself when workers at the company have nowhere to turn,” said Kendall Fells, organizing director of Fast Food Forward.

“McDonald’s has the power to fix this problem, but instead it chooses to skirt its responsibility and hide behind its franchise model.”

Addressing racial and sexual harassment have been a goal for many fast food workers. “Dignity and respect is a common theme running throughout” many workers’ narratives, wrote People’s World reporter Tony Pecinovsky in 2013, “fast-food workers just want to be treated better. Racism, sexism, and favoritism are rampant.”

The complaint filed Thursday brings harassment and discrimination claims under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Section 1981. Soon after the lawsuit was announced Twitter activists began using the hashtag #NotLovinRacism, parodying McDonald’s tagline, “I’m lovin it.”

Photo: Light Brigading/flickr/cc