Fast food workers opened another front in their struggle with McDonald’s on Thursday, when 10 former employees of a Virginia-based franchise sued the company for allegedly violating their civil rights.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court, the plaintiffs allege that both McDonald’s and one of its franchisees violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by subjecting employees to “rampant racial and sexual harassment.” The alleged abuse occurred at three McDonald’s restaurants in Virginia, all owned by the franchisee Soweva Corporation.
According to the complaint, managers called their employees epithets such as “dirty Mexican,” “bitch” and “ghetto.” The lawsuit also says managers “inappropriately touched female employees on their legs and buttocks; sent female employees sexual pictures; and solicited sexual relations from female employees.” Black employees were disciplined for minor infractions that white employees were allowed to get away with and fired shortly after the franchisee had hired more white workers, according to the suit.
“Being a good worker didn’t matter,” said Katrina Stanfield, one of the plaintiffs, during a Thursday conference call with reporters. “I was fired for being black."
Workers approached the local chapter of the NAACP for assistance “after facing months of racial harassment, abuse, and intimidation,” said Rev. Kevin Chandler, president of the South Boston-Halifax NAACP chapter. That NAACP chapter then reached out to Fight for $15, a labor group that is behind a series of nationwide strikes in the fast food industry.
The fast food workers campaign, which is demanding an industry-wide wage floor of $15 per hour and the right to form a union, has previously backed worker lawsuits against McDonald’s alleging systemic wage theft. Fight for $15 announced on Thursday that it is also launching a national hotline for McDonald’s employees to report instances of harassment and discrimination.
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs has also joined with the plaintiffs to provide pro bono legal work, the group announced on Thursday.
“We will do whatever it takes to support the workers in their efforts to hold McDonald’s responsible for its treatment of their employees in this case,” said Roderic V.O. Boggs, the group’s executive director, during a Thursday conference call.
Like the wage theft lawsuits, the civil rights suit filed on Thursday argues that McDonald’s Corporation is liable for legal infractions that occur at its franchised locations. This is an ongoing point of contention between corporations with franchises and activist groups such as Fight for $15, which holds that McDonald’s is a “joint employer” with its franchisees.
McDonald’s and powerful industry groups such as the International Franchise Association argue that franchisors don’t wield sufficient power over their franchisees to be considered joint employers, or to share legal responsibility for the working environment at franchised locations.
Samuel Bagenstos, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and a former member of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama, said the lawsuit filed on Thursday could shift the legal terrain around joint employment.
“If the plaintiffs prevail in this case, I think it will be very significant in both setting legal precedent and sending a message that franchisors are responsible for the actions of the people who bare their brands and who send money back to the source,” he said.
The case for McDonald’s as a joint employer is advancing on another front. The general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board in December 2014 launched a case against McDonald’s for retaliation against workers who participated in union organizing at its franchises, arguing the company is jointly responsible for its franchisees’ alleged violations of the National Labor Relations Act.
In response to a request for comment, Soweva passed along the phone number for the McDonald’s Corporation’s media hotline.
“We have not seen the lawsuit, and cannot comment on its allegations, but will review the matter carefully,” said McDonald’s in a statement. "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.”