In a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Thursday, 10 former workers at three McDonald’s locations in Virginia allege that they were unceremoniously fired last May after being told by supervisors that there were “too many black people” working at the franchises.
The lawsuit, filed this morning in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, alleges that high-ranking supervisors regularly referred to one of the branches as the “ghetto store” and referred to black workers as “ghetto” and “ratchet,” and that one supervisor sexually harassed female employees.
The employees, nine of whom are African American and one of whom is Hispanic, said in the complaint that the mass firings of 17 minority staff members came in May and that store managers told them at the time that it was “too dark” in the restaurants and that they “need 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,” Willie Betts, who was a cook at one of the McDonald’s franchises, said in a statement.“I had no idea what they meant by the ‘right profile’ until I saw everyone else that they fired as well.”
Mike Simon, owner of the three branches where the firings took place – and who is black – has said previously that discrimination had nothing to do with the firings.
“I continually strive to maintain an environment in which everyone feels valued and accepted. To protect the privacy of current and past employees, I’m not at liberty to discuss issues regarding employment or termination,” Simon said in a statement to the media in May. “However, my organization has a strict policy of prohibiting any form of discrimination or harassment in hiring, termination or any other aspect of employment.”
The complaint states that Simon took over control of the three Virginia franchises in late 2013 and soon after implemented a hiring plan to bring in more white employees – which the complaint alleges prompted a supervisor at one of the locations to exclaim “now we can get rid of the n*****s and the Mexicans.”
The lawsuit names the McDonald’s corporation as a party, seizing on a ruling in July by the National Labor Relations Board that deemed the fast food company a “joint employer” that could be held liable at a corporate level for labor or wage violations at its franchise locations.
“We asked McDonald’s corporate to help us get our jobs back, but the company told us to take our concerns to the franchisee – the same franchisee that just fired us,” plaintiff Pamela Marable, who was fired in May from one of the stores, said in a prepared statement. “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.”
“We have not seen the lawsuit, and cannot comment on its allegations, but will review the matter carefully,” McDonald’s corporate said in a statement Thursday. “McDonald’s has a long-standing history of embracing the diversity of employees, independent Franchisees, customers and suppliers, and discrimination is completely inconsistent with our values. 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.”
Local civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, are supporting the lawsuit and have worked with the former workers in the eight months since the firings.
“The treatment of these McDonald’s workers seems like it’s out of another era, but sadly the racism is a reality they are confronting today,” said the Rev. Kevin Chandler, president of the South Boston Chapter of the NAACP and vice president of the NAACP Virginia State Conference, in a prepared statement. “The South Boston NAACP will stand with these fired workers until McDonald’s takes responsibility for the inhumane treatment these workers faced in its stores.”
This post has been updated.