Fast-food workers protest wage theft

McDonald's was sued last week, other suits coming, say advocates

Peter Brownell addresses demonstrators
  • Peter Brownell addresses demonstrators

A group of advocates for fast-food workers gathered outside a McDonald's restaurant on Main Street in Barrio Logan Tuesday morning, March 18, to protest widespread allegations of wage theft at the company and elsewhere.

Workers say that they've had hours shaved off their time cards, had time worked on one day logged on another in order to avoid being paid overtime, and have been forced to start work before clocking in or continue working after clocking out. Some say they have been denied meal breaks, forced to purchase uniforms, or told to clock out during slow times but remain onsite to continue working once business picks up.

Last Thursday, three lawsuits challenging McDonald’s, including one in California, were filed, the opening salvo in what Alor Calderon of the Employee Rights Center promised would be an escalating nationwide campaign.

"It's not just a campaign against McDonald's," said Calderon, who said workers’-rights activists were conducting an "industry-wide search for issues with illegal pay."

The Employee Rights Center and Fight for 15 are seeking more potential plaintiffs to come forward to join the McDonald's suit or to begin to form classes to launch attacks on other fast-food chains.

That may prove to be a difficult task — restaurants have successfully dismissed previous suits by claiming that their franchisees were the ones responsible for recording employee hours and reporting them properly. In the case of McDonald's, however, the corporate parent allegedly has provided franchisees advice on trimming labor costs through such questionable practices as having an employee work through lunch, then clock out and remain on call nearby to clock back in before the dinner rush.

"Each person is entitled to be paid for the work that they do. It's what is fair and what is right and there is no one who should doubt that," said Dr. Beth Johnson from the Interfaith Center for Worker Justice.

"Wage theft is very widespread," added Justin Hewgill, an attorney for the Employee Rights Center, citing a recent survey of fast-food workers in which 84 percent reported having been victimized in at least one of the ways mentioned in the suit.

Raquel Neri, a fast-food worker active in the Fight for 15 movement pushing for a $15 minimum wage, said through a translator that she had frequently been asked to continue working after clocking out and that her work hours had been incorrectly recorded in order to avoid paying her overtime.

"We found in our most recent study that 38 percent of households in San Diego can't meet basic needs," said Dr. Peter Brownell, research director at the Center on Policy Initiatives, adding that the local figures jumped to over 50 percent when talking specifically about food-service workers. "That's the situation for workers. On the other hand, the fast-food industry is booming — McDonald's made five-and-a-half billion dollars in profit in 2012 alone."

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Before jumping off a cliff, and concluding that this is true of every McDonald's, it might be worth understanding that all of those operations are franchised. That means that each one can be a separate proprietorship, partnership, or small corporation that is a separate legal entity from the huge corporate identity.

While I don't doubt that these abuses take place, and may be widespread, they are not the ugly face of the McDonald's corporation. Should the plaintiffs be able to prove that the corporation is counseling its independent franchisees to engage in the abuses, they will have a gold mine. I suspect, however, that even if some employees of Mickey's have done those things, they don't represent the policies of the corporation. It is a worldwide operation, and cannot develop a reputation of that sort.

In some ways, I'm not surprised that this suit is announced in Barrio Logan, a poor area of the city, and one where most of the staff is minority. That would be a perfect spot to abuse employees at will.

Oh, there has been plenty of dissent within the ranks of the franchisees. There was an organized group of them here in SD county many years ago that was opposing many of the initiatives being pushed by the corporation, and complaining of how their needs were being ignored. It may continue to this day. Many of them might have been those who wanted to do everything by the book, by the laws, and still make a profit.

This is a corner of a much more complicated story and a set of competing players. No, I don't advocate for employee abuses at all. Those folks, for the most part, are far more cheerful and accommodating than I could ever be in such a role, and for such meager pay. Just be sure who is to be blamed, and don't tar everyone with the same brush.

Visduh - what makes these McDonald's cases unique (and causes me to speculate that suing other corporate headquarters rather than individual franchisees) is that McDonald's allegedly did pressure the franchisees to meet what it calls "labor cost percentage targets," and may have advised specific behaviors such as making employees clock out during lulls in business but not leave, clocking them back in when business picked up.

If that can be proved, the plaintiffs may have a case. Anything less and the cases are likely swiftly dismissed.

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