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Workers file civil rights suit against McDonald's

High-ranking managers at three Virginia McDonald's referred to their black employees as “too dark” and “ghetto” before firing them, a lawsuit alleges.
A McDonald's restaurant is pictured in Encinitas, California Sept. 9, 2014. (Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters)
A McDonald's restaurant is pictured in Encinitas, California Sept. 9, 2014.

Ten former McDonald’s employees in Virginia filed a major civil rights lawsuit Thursday against the fast food giant, alleging racial discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful termination that was carried out and sanctioned at the highest levels of management.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race and sex, among other characteristics -- charges the company with firing more than a dozen black workers because they “didn’t fit the profile” desired at three McDonald’s stores in Clarkesville and South Boston, Virginia. There, high-ranking managers referred to their black employees as “too dark” and “ghetto,” the lawsuit claims, while one supervisor allegedly routinely touched female workers inappropriately and offered better working conditions in exchange for sexual favors. The complaint further accuses McDonald’s Corp. of doing nothing to address the discrimination in some of its stores, saying that despite its assertions to the contrary, McDonald’s Corp. has control over “nearly every aspect of its restaurants’ operations.”

“McDonald’s Corp. is trying to have the best of both worlds … all of the control and profits, but none of the responsibility,” said Paul Smith, an attorney at Patterson Harkavy who’s representing the workers, on a press call.

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Nine of the plaintiffs listed in the complaint are African American, and one is Hispanic. According to the lawsuit, McDonald’s supervisors called the Hispanic plaintiff a “dirty Mexican.” The defendants include McDonald’s Corp., McDonald’s USA, franchise owner Michael Simon, and his company, Soweva Co.

In a statement, McDonald's said Thursday it had not yet seen the lawsuit, but would review the matter carefully.

"McDonald's has a long-standing history of embracing the diversity of employees, independent Franchises, customers and suppliers, and discrimination is completely inconsistent with our values," the company said in the statement. "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."

It’s not the first time McDonald’s employees have brought charges directly against the corporation. In July, McDonald’s workers in New York similarly accused the corporation of not responding to sexual and racial harassment allegations. Earlier in the year, employees filed seven class-action suits against both McDonald’s Corp. and its franchises for wage theft.

Katrina Stanfield, one of the fired employees who brought Thursday’s complaint, told reporters she “faced abuse constantly” during the year and a half she worked at a South Boston, Virginia, McDonald’s. After hearing comments from one supervisor about her hair and working under another supervisor who showed naked pictures of himself to female employees, Stanfield said she was called into the franchise owner’s office to be let go, even though she had never been written up before.

“Being a good worker didn’t matter,” she said. “I was getting fired for being black.”

Stanfield said she then struggled to support her family without work for several months, all the while trying to get McDonald’s Corp. to step in.

“I still don’t understand why McDonald’s did nothing to get our jobs back,” she said.

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The complaint has the backing of the NAACP and Fast Food Forward, a group that has been waging a years-long campaign to win $15-an-hour wages for fast food workers and the right to unionize without retaliation. The movement has resulted in numerous nationwide strikes, the latest of which took place in approximately 190 cities. Kendall Fells, organizing director of Fast Food Forward, announced on Thursday the group was launching a national toll-free hotline for fast workers across the country to report incidents of harassment on the job.

“What these workers have experienced here at McDonald’s is shocking, but it’s sad to say that it’s not unique,” Fells told reporters Thursday. “Rampant abuse,” he continued, “is just one reason why workers have joined together to demand $15 an hour and union rights.”