McDonald’s faces employee lawsuit over franchisee behavior

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Several fired McDonald’s employees who say they were subject to racial discrimination and sexual harassment have sued the fast-food chain’s corporate parent, which they say controls nearly every aspect of how franchisees operate.

The workers say in a federal complaint filed Thursday that about 15 African-American employees of some southern Virginia restaurants run by Soweva Co. were fired last May. Many were told by Soweva owner Michael Simon that while they were good workers they “didn’t fit the profile” he was trying to build for the company, according to the complaint.

The employees said that when they called corporate offices to complain about the dismissals and “blatant racial discrimination,” corporate officials did nothing.

A statement from McDonald’s Corp. said the company had not seen the lawsuit and couldn’t comment on the allegations but that it and its franchisees “share a commitment to the well-being and fair treatment of all people who work in McDonald’s restaurants.”

Representatives of Soweva and Simon did not immediately return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.

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The workers said in the complaint that restaurant supervisors frequently demeaned African-American workers by using terms like “ghetto” to describe them and complaining that there were “too many black people in the store.” The complaint also states that female employees were inappropriately touched by a supervisor who also solicited sex and sent lewd photos.

Franchisees operate the vast majority of the chain’s more than 14,000 U.S. restaurants, and the case reflects a growing point of contention for the Oak Brook, Illinois-based restaurant chain.

The lawsuit comes a month after the National Labor Relations Board designated McDonald’s Corp. as a “joint-employer” with franchisees. The NLRB, a federal agency that resolves employee-management disputes in the private sector, contends that the company and its franchisees are joint employers because the company wields extensive influence over how the franchisees operate.

McDonald’s has vowed to contest that designation.

That decision centered on pay and working conditions. NLRB said it found dozens of cases of unlawful conduct by the company, including sanctions against workers who had sought job improvements, including by participating in nationwide fast food worker protests.

The general counsel office of the agency ruled in December that the company violated the rights of employees openly seeking better pay and working conditions. Hearings are set for March on whether to pursue disciplinary steps.

Over the past two years, workers at McDonald’s and other fast-food outlets in many cities have been engaging in brief “strikes” while calling for an increase in the minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $15 an hour and the right to unionize.

BY TOM MURPHY, AP Business Writer

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