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Former McDonald's Workers Sue Over Racial Discrimination, Sexual Harassment

Employees say they were fired from Virginia franchise with 'too many black people'

McDonald's faces another labor violations lawsuit as fast food workers' rights become a national talking point. (Photo: Light Brigading/flickr/cc)

Ten former McDonald's employees filed a civil rights lawsuit against the fast food giant on Thursday over claims of racial discrimination and sexual harassment at three separate locations in Virginia.

Nine black workers and one Hispanic worker say they were subjected to "rampant racial and sexual harassment" by supervisors at three store locations in Clarkesville and South Boston.

The suit, filed under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in the workplace, alleges that McDonald's wrongfully terminated a dozen black and Hispanic employees at the same time because they "didn't fit the profile" desired at its restaurants, with managers reportedly telling their majority-black staff that it was to "get the ghetto out of the store."

"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 worked as a cook at the South Boston location. "I had no idea what they meant by the right profile until I saw everyone else that they fired as well."

On other occasions, supervisors allegedly said there were "too many black people" working in the stores, referred to black employees as "bitch," "ghetto," and "ratchet," and disciplined them more harshly than their white co-workers.

The lawsuit comes at a time of growing resistance to McDonald's treatment of its employees, particularly as the fight for a higher minimum wage continues to hold national attention.

Kendall Fells, organizing director of Fast Food Forward, said the claims represent a larger issue with the company's policies. "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," Fells said on Thursday. "McDonald's has the power to fix this problem, but instead it chooses to skirt its responsibility and hide behind its franchise model."

While McDonald's has claimed it has no control over the treatment of workers at individual stores, several federal complaints filed last year charge that the company is a "joint employer" with its franchise owners, making it at least partially responsible for labor violations.

The workers alleged sexual harassment in addition to racial discrimination. One plaintiff, Katrina Stanfield, told reporters on a conference call that one manager routinely touched employees inappropriately and sent them naked pictures of himself, while the corporate arm of the company refused to address the harassment. The lawsuit also claims the manager offered better working conditions in exchange for sexual favors.

"I still don't understand why McDonald's did nothing," Stanfield said on the call.

The lawsuit contends that because McDonald's has control over "nearly every aspect of its restaurants' operations," it bears responsibility for the harassment and discrimination at its individual stores. Despite regular inspection visits at the Virginia locations and local media attention paid to the firings, the corporate office would not intervene, the lawsuit states.

"[T]he company told us to take our concerns to the franchisee—the same franchisee that just fired us," plaintiff Pamela Marable said on Thursday. "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."

Rev. Kevin Chandler, president of the South Boston chapter of the NAACP, said the charges seem "out of another era, but sadly the racism is a reality they are confronting today."

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