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Former fast-food managers admit to wage theft

Their revelations come as survey finds 90 percent of fast-food workers report money was taken from wages illegally

Nine out of 10 fast-food workers said they are the victims of wage theft, according to a nationwide poll released on Tuesday. The results come on the heels of a series of labor lawsuits and protests that put the industry under an uncomfortable spotlight and revealed widespread labor abuses in restaurants.

The advocacy group Low Pay Is Not OK commissioned the poll. The group also highlighted the experiences of two former McDonald's managers who spoke about how they were pressured to boost profits by manipulating numbers in a central computer system keeping track of workers' pay. The managers said they inserted unpaid breaks in workers’ schedules, shaved hours from shifts and moved hours from one week to the next to avoid paying workers overtime.

Kwanza Brooks, a former manager at McDonald’s restaurants in North Carolina and Maryland who is now an advocate with Low Pay Is Not OK, told Al Jazeera withholding pay from employees was an “unofficial policy” to keep labor expenses low and hit targets.

“It’s like running a competition, so to speak, an incentive,” said Brooks. “If you keep labor down, what it does is that it gives the account managers a bonus. That’s what their real target was.” Asterisks next to the names of employees who worked overtime helped store managers keep track of expensive outliers and, in the industry’s euphemism, “balance labor.”

The survey poll of 1,088 fast-food workers in 10 major cities across the United States also found:

— 92 percent of Burger King workers, 84 percent of McDonald’s workers and 82 percent of Wendy’s workers are victims of wage theft;

— 60 percent of fast-food workers have experienced three or more different types of wage theft;

— 60 percent of fast-food workers have been required to perform tasks before clocking in or after clocking out;

— 26 percent of fast-food workers have not always been paid time and a half for overtime hours they worked.

In addition, 4 in 5 workers describe their conditions as “just fair or poor,” and 1 in 4 women report being discriminated against because of gender.

Olga Garcia, a mother of three who has worked at McDonald’s in Oakland, Calif., for 14 years, said she could barely survive on what she makes, “and that’s before they start chiseling money from my check.”

“This poll shows that I am not alone and that fast-food companies are boosting their profits by stealing from just about every one of us workers. That’s why we are all joining together to form a union because together we can fight to end these illegal practices,” she said in a statement.

Brooks, a 37-year-old single mother of three children, said she worked at McDonald’s for 12 years, until one day she “just became tired of it.” Familiar with the challenges workers such as Garcia face, she quit to protest the unfairness she said was inflicted on her workers whose complaints were ignored. 

“It makes you feel bad. It’s hard enough as it is,” she said. “You’re working to just pay your bills, but it’s even harder if you have a company that’s more concerned about keeping money for itself ... They don’t care that you have kids, they don’t care that you are a parent and need to spend time with your kids.”

McDonald’s said in an online statement that it would be investigating the allegations.

“McDonald’s and our independent owner-operators share a concern and commitment to the well-being and fair treatment of all people who work in McDonald’s restaurants,” said Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem, a company spokeswoman. “McDonald’s and our independent owner-operators are each committed to undertaking a comprehensive investigation of the allegations and will take any necessary actions as they apply to our respective organizations.”

The fair-pay movement is gaining momentum following the settlement of two labor lawsuits against fast-food companies in New York, where a 2012 survey found 84 percent of fast-food employees reported wage theft.

A McDonald’s franchise owner in March settled a lawsuit in the amount of $500,000 for unpaid laundry allowances, uncompensated work time and unlawful wage deductions. The company also faces class-action lawsuits in Michigan and California for alleged wage theft. The owners of 23 Domino’s restaurants agreed to pay nearly half a million dollars in a similar case last week.

In November, hundreds of workers walked off their jobs in strikes across the country, demanding their wages be raised from the minimum $7.25 to $15.

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