Fired McDonald’s workers bring lawsuit against fast-food giant

South Boston News

McDonald’s workers who were fired last year in South Boston and Clarksville have filed suit in federal court against the fast-food giant, alleging a widespread pattern of racial and sexual discrimination and harassment at three area McDonald’s.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, was brought by 10 former workers at three Clarksville and South Boston McDonald’s stores. The lawsuit alleges the company in May 2014 simultaneously fired more than a dozen black workers who “didn’t fit the profile” desired at its restaurants. Top-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,” according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs are the McDonald’s Corporation, based in the Chicago area, and local franchise Soweva Co. and owner Michael Simon, who is African-American. The lawsuit alleges discriminatory behavior by company managers including Devin Snead, supervisor of the Centerville and Riverdale store locations in South Boston and a third store in Clarksville.

“All of a sudden, they let me go, for no other reason than I ‘didn’t fit the profile’ they wanted at the store,” said plaintiff Willie Betts, who was a cook at the South Boston McDonald’s until he was fired last May. “I had no idea what they meant by the right profile until I saw everyone else that they fired as well. I worked at McDonald’s for almost five years, I was on time every day at four o’clock in the morning to open the store, and I never had a disciplinary write-up. They took away the only source of income I have to support my family.”

Bette’s remarks were part of a press release announcing the lawsuit.

The workers are being supported by The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which describes itself as a provider of pro bono legal services to address discrimination and entrenched poverty. The organization announced the filing of the lawsuit Thursday.

“The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs is deeply disturbed by the allegations of discrimination in this case and is committed to helping the fired workers win justice,” said Roderic V.O. Boggs, executive director of the group, in an e-mailed statement. “Our organization has a long history of fighting racism and discrimination, including landmark cases involving numerous national restaurant chains. And we will do whatever it takes to support the workers in their effort to hold McDonald’s responsible for the treatment of its employees.”

At the time that the workers’ complaints first surfaced — reported by — Simon issued a statement denying that racial discrimination played any role in the firings.

“At my McDonald’s restaurants, inclusion and diversity are business imperatives,” he stated via e-mail in May 2014. “I continually strive to maintain an environment in which everyone feels valued and accepted. To protect the privacy of current and past employees, I’m not at liberty to discuss issues regarding employment or termination.

“However, my organization has a strict policy of prohibiting any form of discrimination or harassment in hiring, termination or any other aspect of employment.

“As an independent franchisee, I believe in strong people practices and set my own employment policies to create and maintain exceptional service experiences for my customers.”

The suit challenges whether McDonald’s can be held responsible for employee-management disputes at its franchise locations. “Despite McDonald’s repeated assertions that it is not the boss at these stores, federal officials late last year filed a dozen complaints charging the company was indeed a joint employer responsible for labor violations at stores across the country,” stated the press release from The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs announcing the lawsuit.

The group’s statement continues as follows:

The complaint contends that McDonald’s Corp. has control over “nearly every aspect of its restaurants’ operations,” and is therefore responsible for the harassment and discrimination workers faced. Several workers contacted McDonald’s Corp. to report the discrimination, but the company did nothing. The complaint charges that the McDonald’s Corp. representative who conducted regular inspection visits at the stores had learned of the terminations soon after they occurred on May 12, but took no action. And the company did nothing after a local paper reported on the firings.

“We asked McDonald’s corporate to help us get our jobs back, but the company told us to take our concerns to the franchisee – the same franchisee that just fired us,’ said plaintiff Pamela Marable, a crewmember at the South Boston McDonald’s who was fired in May. “McDonald’s closely monitors everything we do, from the speed of the drive-through line, to the way we smile and fold customers’ bags – but when we try to tell the company that we’re facing discrimination, they ignore us and say that it’s not their problem.”

Highest-ranking supervisors regularly called the Clarkesville McDonald’s the “ghetto store,” referred to black workers as “bitch,” “ghetto,” and “ratchet,” and disciplined them for rule infractions that were forgiven when committed by white workers, the complaint alleges. One supervisor routinely touched female workers on their legs and buttocks, discussed sexual activities with female workers and offered better working conditions in exchange for sexual favors, according to the complaint.

Several workers contacted the South Boston chapter of the NAACP last year to report the harassment and discrimination. Leaders of the chapter met with the workers and then contacted the Fight for $15 movement for help. Both organizations are providing ongoing support to the workers in connection with Thursday’s suit.

“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,” said the Rev. Kevin Chandler, president of the South Boston Chapter of the NAACP and Vice President of the NAACP Virginia State Conference. “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.”

In response to the suit, the Fight for $15 movement launched a toll-free national hotline Thursday for McDonald’s workers across the country to report incidences of harassment and abuse at the workplace. The number is (855) 729-2869.

“This is a problem that goes far beyond these stores in Virginia – it’s a problem with McDonald’s business model itself when workers at the company have nowhere to turn,” said Kendall Fells, Organizing Director of Fast Food Forward. “McDonald’s has the power to fix this problem, but instead it chooses to skirt its responsibility and hide behind its franchise model.”

The complaint filed Thursday brings harassment and discrimination claims under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Section 1981.

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