Some McDonald's workers who say they were fired because of their race are suing the fast-food giant, accusing it of dodging responsibility for the discrimination and harassment they say they endured.
The workers said in a federal complaint filed Thursday that about 15 African-American employees of some southern Virginia restaurants run by Soweva Co. were fired last May after several white employees were hired. Many of those fired were told by Soweva owner Michael Simon that while they were good workers they "didn't fit the profile" he was trying to build for the company, according to the complaint.
The employees said that McDonald's Corp. controls nearly every aspect of how franchisees operate restaurants, but corporate officials did nothing when they were contacted about the dismissals and "blatant racial discrimination."
A statement from McDonald's Corp. said the company had not seen the lawsuit and couldn't comment on the allegations, but it and its franchisees "share a commitment to the well-being and fair treatment of all people who work in McDonald's restaurants."
Representatives of Soweva and Simon did not return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.
The workers said in the complaint that before they were fired, restaurant supervisors frequently demeaned African-American workers by using terms like "ghetto" to describe them and by complaining that there were "too many black people in the store." The complaint also states that female employees were inappropriately touched by a male supervisor who also sent them naked photos and offered better working conditions in exchange for sex.
Former restaurant shift manager Katrina Stanfield said in a conference call with reporters that she faced "constant abuse" before she was fired last May, after Simon told her he would give her a reference for being a good worker. Stanfield wound up being unemployed for five months. She fell behind on her bills and couldn't buy school clothes for her children.
McDonald's advertises heavily in black neighborhoods but "turns its back" on its workers when they face discrimination, said the Rev. Kevin Chandler, president of the South Boston, Virginia, Chapter of the NAACP.
"McDonald's must be held responsible for permitting this unconscionable mistreatment of its workers," he said.
Franchisees operate the vast majority of McDonald Corp.'s more than 14,000 U.S. restaurants, and the case reflects a growing point of contention for the Oak Brook, Illinois-based restaurant chain.
The lawsuit comes a month after the National Labor Relations Board designated McDonald's Corp. as a "joint-employer" with franchisees. The NLRB, a federal agency that resolves employee-management disputes in the private sector, contends that the company and its franchisees are joint employers because the company wields extensive influence over how the franchisees operate.
The agency's general counsel office ruled in December that the company violated the rights of employees openly seeking better pay and working conditions. Hearings are set for March on whether to pursue disciplinary steps.
McDonald's has vowed to contest that designation.
The plaintiffs in the discrimination lawsuit face a big challenge, according to Paul Millus, a New York lawyer who handles civil rights and employment issues. Millus, who is not involved in the litigation, said the company that runs the restaurant is seen as the actual employer in these cases "almost as a matter of law."
"It is a separate entity, it has a separate existence ... except it is associated with a name that happens to come from a franchise agreement," he said, adding that he saw the lawsuit as more of a test case than viable litigation.
Over the past couple years, workers at McDonald's and other fast-food outlets in many cities have been engaging in brief "strikes" while calling for an increase in the minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $15 an hour and the right to unionize.
The discrimination and harassment alleged in the McDonald's lawsuit are not isolated, said Kendall Fells, an organizing director of a worker-rights campaign called Fast Food Forward. He said that was one of the reasons employees are seeking better wages and union protection.