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McDonald's Accused of 'Wage Theft' by Thousands of Employees in Lawsuits

The fast food giant has allegedly stolen wages from tens of thousands of employees. It now faces seven class action lawsuits.

by Mary Emily O'Hara
Mar 13 2014, 6:10pm

Photo via Flickr/iboy_daniel

McDonald’s faced a slew of legal action from tens of thousands of its employees this week, accusing the company of stealing their wages through a variety of illegal practices.

The world’s largest restaurant chain was hit with seven class action lawsuits in Michigan, California, and New York on Wednesday and Thursday.

Lawyers for the class action clients told VICE News today that the proceedings cite numerous violations against the fast food giant. These include forcing “off the clock” work, requiring employees to pay for uniforms and their cleaning in states where companies are legally obligated to cover costs, and other forms of “wage theft that cause employees to lose an average of $2,600 per year.”

Around 25,000 McDonald's employees are named in just one of the California lawsuits. At least tens of thousands of workers are represented by the totality of class action lawsuits.

Jason Hughes, a plaintiff from a McDonald’s in Fremont, California, told reporters: “When I took the job, I knew I wouldn’t be making a lot of money but I thought at least a big company like McDonald’s would treat me fairly. That didn’t happen.

“I filed this lawsuit to stand up for myself and my coworkers,” Hughes said. He described being told to punch out shortly after arriving to work and being forced to wait around without pay until managers allowed his to punch in. “McDonald’s can’t count on us to keep silent.”

Lawyers say McDonald’s franchisees use corporate computer programs to closely monitor the ratio of labor costs to revenues. When it exceeds a corporate-set target, managers allegedly tell workers arriving for their shifts to wait for up to an hour to clock in.

New York’s Fast Food Forward workers’ movement says the average fast food worker in NYC makes only $11,000 a year — a mere 25 percent of what is needed to get by in the expensive city.

The current drive to organize fast food workers began with a relatively small New York protest at a KFC in late 2012. A year later, the December 2013 one-day strike saw fast food workers walk off the job in over 100 cities.

Multiple emails and calls from VICE News to McDonald’s press office went unreturned. Meanwhile, the McDonald’s website states clear intent to invalidate the union drive: “The events taking place are not strikes. Outside groups are traveling to McDonald’s and other outlets to stage rallies.”

With President Obama intending to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 and index it to inflation, many low-wage workers are still concerned the raise isn’t sufficient.

David Rojas of Chicago’s Fight For 15 campaign told VICE News: “$15 is the bare minimum workers feel they need to live on.”

Rojas said low wages aren’t the only problem making it hard for Chicago fast-food workers to survive: “A lot of the workers, they don’t even have a set schedule to work with and can’t get enough hours, so they have to have a second or third job. One of our demands now is more hours.”

Naquasia LeGrand, a Brooklyn KFC worker who has become a star of the fast food worker’s movement, appeared on the Colbert Report in January. She explained that she can only get 15 hours a week at the KFC where she works and is paid $8 an hour. Previously, LeGrand worked at two separate KFC stores in order to piece together a 35-hour workweek.

Tsedeye Gebreselassie, staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project (NELP), told VICE News that the term “wage theft” encompasses “a variety of ways employers deny workplace protections.”

A NELP study published last October quickly went viral. This stated that the McDonald’s workforce is estimated to use an annual $1.2 billion a year in food stamps, Medicaid, and other services needed because wages are too low to meet basic living standards.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s announced profits of $5.5 billion for 2013, as well as a payment of $4.9 billion to shareholders through dividends and share repurchases

One of those billions, according to NELP, is what the company saved by letting taxpayers cover the difference.

The numbers continue to stagger the mind. McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson is paid $13.7 million a year — meaning he makes more in a single week than around 90 percent of his employees make in a year.

It should be noted that Thompson, the first black McDonald’s chief, is a stellar example of American bootstrapping. After a childhood nearby Chicago’s notoriously violent Cabrini-Green projects, Thompson won a Purdue University scholarship and started with McDonald’s as an engineer.

Yet lack of mobility might be the company’s greatest coup against its own workers: many McDonald’s front-line employees stick around for 20 years or more, never to see their wages rise above the minimum. If it’s hard to imagine working decades for one company into middle age and never getting a raise, Chicago’s Tyree Johnson can attest — he’s made $8.25 an hour since coming on the job in 1994.

Today’s McLawsuit news is sure to inspire more low-wage workers to join a “National Day of Action” this Saturday that is being organized by the Seattle group 15 Now in 21 cities across the country.

Jesse Lessinger, an organizer with 15 Now, told VICE News that the group is lobbying for a ballot initiative and already has the support of the mayor, some of the city council, and a 68 percent poll support rate. Lessinger is confident that last year’s $15 minimum wage victory in SeaTac, a Washington airport town, could extend to Seattle: “SeaTac was very important but if we win in a major US city, it could take the struggle to a new level.”

Follow Mary Emily O'Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara

Photo via Flickr/iboy_daniel

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