On Thursday, 10 former McDonald’s employees in Virginia filed a civil rights lawsuit against the company, charging it with racial and sexual harassment as well as wrongful termination, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.
The lawsuit, which was shared with ThinkProgress, claims the plaintiffs were “subjected to rampant racial and sexual harassment, committed by the restaurants’ highest-ranking supervisors.” Nine of the plaintiffs are African American, while the remaining one is Hispanic; seven of them are women. They claim that supervisors “demeaned African American workers; often complained that ‘there are too many black people in the store;’ called African-American workers ‘bitch,’ ‘ghetto,’ and ‘ratchet;’ called Hispanic workers ‘dirty Mexican;’ disciplined African-American employees for rule infractions that were forgiven when committed by white employees; inappropriately touched female employees on their legs and buttocks; sent female employees sexual pictures; and solicited sexual relations from female employees.”
It also claims that the franchisee, Soweva Co., implemented a plan to reduce the number of black employees and hire more whites. One supervisor allegedly told another, “now we can get rid of the niggers and the Mexicans.” Nine of the plaintiffs allege they were fired soon after, along with 11 others, and they were told it was because they didn’t “fit the profile.” They say they complained to McDonald’s corporate but that it didn’t respond. The remaining plaintiff says she was forced to resign after ongoing racial harassment.
On a call with press, one of the plaintiffs, Katrina Stanfield, described the harassment she says she endured, including “rude remarks about our hair or how we looked.” She worked for about a year and a half and was promoted from her starting position as a cashier to shift manager by the time she was fired. “Getting fired came as a total shock to me,” she said. “I had never been written up before or faced disciplinary actions during my time at McDonald’s… But being a good worker didn’t matter. I was fired for being black.”
She said getting fired has taken a toll on her financially. She was out of work for five months and “quickly started falling behind on my bills,” she said. She and her two children moved in with her sister and her sister’s children. “I couldn’t even buy my children clothing for school,” she said. “I was afraid my sister and I might even lose our house.”
The suit charges both McDonald’s corporate and local franchisees, claiming that the “stores operate…through uniform standards controlled by McDonald’s Corporate,” with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bans employment discrimination based on race, sex, and other characteristics. On the press call, the attorney on the lawsuit, Paul Smith, outlined the evidence he thinks should hold McDonald’s corporate responsible. “We believe McDonald’s corporate controlled nearly every aspect of the store’s operations,” he said, including mandating policies that franchisees had to follow, sending representatives to the store daily, using a computer system that monitored labor and sent employee information back to corporate, and requiring training for supervisors that included how to handle harassment.
The plaintiffs are seeking payment for lost wages, emotional distress, and other damages. The suit is backed by the South Boston NAACP and the Fight for $15 campaign.
In response, McDonald’s issued the following statement: “We have not seen the lawsuit, and cannot comment on its allegations, but will review the matter carefully. 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.”
This is not the first lawsuit employees have brought directly against the corporation. McDonald’s workers in Queens, New York previously filed a lawsuit alleging that McDonald’s failed to respond to allegations that their supervisor sexually harassed them and made disparaging racial comments. And in March of last year, employees filed seven class-action suits claiming widespread wage theft. The latter were notable for the fact that they held the company responsible, not just the franchisees at the particular stores, given its use of a computer system it installs to monitor labor costs.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has sided with the workers’ claims that the corporate entity is responsible for labor conditions in its stores and in December it filed a formal charge against the company as well as specific franchisees, alleging it violated workers’ rights in a variety of ways. While those charges are for different instances, the NLRB’s move to hold McDonald’s itself accountable bolsters the other lawsuits.
All the legal action is taking place against a backdrop of intense labor organizing at McDonald’s and other fast food chains. What started as a single strike in New York City in November of 2012 has turned into mass walk outs across the country, the latest of which hit 191 cities. The movement has also now incorporated other tactics, such as civil disobedience. Fast food workers have been calling for a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union.
The food industry is notorious for the harassment workers have to endure. Just 7 percent of women work in restaurants, yet the industry is responsible for 37 percent of all sexual harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and 60 percent of women say they have been sexually harassed. People of color who work in restaurants are less likely to get a job offer than their white counterparts and make less if they do.
This post has been updated with a statement from the company and quotes from a call with a plaintiff and the lawyer on the case.