McDonald’s workers say they were fired for being black. Is McD's liable?

McDonald's workers from three Virginia restaurants filed a lawsuit Thursday alleging wrongful firings based on race, sexual harassment, and discriminatory treatment by the company’s restaurant owners. But can McDonald's be held responsible? 

Keith Srakocic/AP/File
A man walks by a logo of McDonald's in front of its restaurant in Tokyo. McDonald's faces a lawsuit filed Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, from workers in Virginia who claim they were wrongfully fired and faced racial discrimination.

McDonald’s is facing a fresh round of legal action from its workers, this time alleging wrongful firings based on race, sexual harassment, and discriminatory treatment by the company’s restaurant owners

 Backed by the local NAACP chapter and the “Fight for 15” protest movement that has targeted low wages in the fast food and retail industries for three years, 10 former workers at three McDonald’s restaurants in western Virginia filed a civil rights lawsuit in district court Thursday accusing the hamburger giant of firing dozens of black workers last year simply for being black.

“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,’ ” a news release announcing the lawsuit reads. Additionally, workers complained that supervisors routinely referred to one of the McDonald’s locations at the center of the lawsuit “the ghetto store,” called black workers a wide array of racially charged names, harassed female employees, and punished black employees for minor infractions that were routinely overlooked when committed by white employees.

“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,” Rev. Kevin Chandler, president of the Virginia NAACP chapter that is joining the suit, said in a statement. “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.”

"We have not seen the lawsuit, and cannot comment on its allegations, but will review the matter carefully,” a McDonald’s USA spokeswoman told the Monitor via e-mail. “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.”

The new lawsuit comes as part of the worker protest movement’s efforts to legally undermine the franchise business model that makes up the bulk of the fast food industry. Ninety percent of McDonald’s locations are independently owned, and the company doesn’t play a regular part in their day-to-day operations. The fast food industry has long argued that this means McDonald’s and other chains that operate under the franchise model aren’t liable when franchisees break labor laws.

But opponents contend that the company has plenty of oversight, conducting regular inspections of stores and giving specific instructions on everything its workers do, “from the speed of the drive-through line to the way we smile and fold customers’ bags,” according to one plaintiff. Labor advocates say the setup leaves McDonald’s with far more control than it claims while providing a convenient way to sidestep responsibility for franchisee wrongdoing.

That argument, over whether the McDonald’s corporation is liable for the actions of its store owners, has been playing out in court over the past year. In July, counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a government labor watchdog, ruled that McDonald’s could be named as a “joint employer” on any lawsuits against its franchisees. Past complaints from workers include forcing employees to work off the clock, refusing to pay for uniforms, and denying overtime pay.

In December, the NLRB filed several complaints that the chain and its franchisees were illegally punishing workers for participating in worker wage protests

McDonald’s and the restaurant industry have vowed to fight the rulings, calling them threats to local job creation and small business owners. The NLRB will take its case to trial in March.  

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