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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

McDonald's Sued Over Claims Workers Were Fired from Store with 'Too Many Black People'

By Jana Kasperkevic in New York, Jan. 22, 2015

Ten employees of Virginia franchise file discrimination lawsuit complaining that they were called ‘ghetto’ and ‘ratchet’ and that McDonald’s did nothing to help.

Out of the 10 plaintiffs – all of whom were fired in May 2014 – nine are African American and one is Hispanic. Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP

Ten former McDonald’s workers in Virginia have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the fast-food chain, claiming that supervisors threw racial and sexual slurs at them, then fired them because the stores had “too many black people”. 

The employees say they overheard their supervisors talk about the “need to get the ghetto out of the store”, and “get rid of the niggers and the Mexicans”.

Out of the 10 plaintiffs – all of whom were fired in May 2014 – nine are African American and one is Hispanic. They filed a complaint in the US district court for the western district of Virginia against McDonald’s, as well as Michael Simon, the owner of the three franchises where they worked.

McDonald’s said it will comment after it has seen the lawsuit. It said: “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”.

The lawsuit was filed at 9am on Thursday.

McDonald’s has generally maintained a “hands-off” policy towards franchisees. Last year, however, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that McDonald’s could be held liable for labor violations at its franchises.

Staff members say they were told they were good workers, but that they “didn’t fit the profile” of desirable employees.

Willie Betts, who had worked at McDonald’s for five years as a cook, said he was never late and did not have any disciplinary write-ups.

“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 Betts. “I had no idea what they meant by the right profile – until I saw everyone else that they fired as well.”

In 2013, Soweva became the franchisee in charge of the McDonald’s restaurants where the plaintiffs worked. About 15 black workers, including nine of the plaintiffs, were fired from Soweva, Simon’s franchise company, on 12 May 2014.

The new ownership said that since the majority of the restaurants’ employees were black, “the ratio was off in each of the stores”, the complaint alleges.

After they were fired, the plaintiffs called McDonald’s corporateheadquarters to complain about their termination, and the racial discrimination they say they experienced.

“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,” said plaintiff Pamela Marable.

The plaintiffs say they hope McDonald’s will be held accountable for the actions of its franchisee.

McDonald’s exercises some degree of control over what its franchisees do when it comes to service, branding and uniforms. When it comes to wages and treatment of employees, however, the company says such decisions are up to the franchisees. 

“McDonald’s closely monitors everything we do, from the speed of the drive-thru 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,” said Marable.

There are some precedents that could favor the plaintiffs. In December, the National Labor Relations board found that 86 of 291 workers’ complaints against McDonald’s as joint employer have a legal merit. As a result, the board filed charges against McDonald’s for violating workers’ rights in 13 cities.

About 90% of US McDonald’s restaurants are “independently owned and operated by franchisees”, according to McDonald’s.

According to the complaint, one supervisor made inappropriate comments, touched female employees on their legs and buttocks, sent female employees pictures of his genitalia and “offered female employees better working conditions in exchange for sexual favors.”

Katrina Stanfield worked for McDonald’s for year and a half before she was fired. First, she started as a cashier but was soon promoted to a manager, a position she held when she was terminated. She was never written up but says she was constantly abused.

“My supervisor would regularly harass me and other non-white workers at the store,” Stanfield said on a press call on Thursday. According to her, that supervisor, a woman, would make rude comments about her hair and looks. Echoing the complaint filed, she said that during staff meeting, the supervisor loudly said “we need to get the ghetto out of the store”.

“[It] made me feel uncomfortable,” said Stanfield. “My other supervisor would regularly harass female workers at the store and made inappropriate comments about their bodies to the men at the store. He would touch workers inappropriately and send workers pictures of himself naked.”

The harassment, according to the complaint, did not start when the new owners took over. The employees promoted and rehired by the new owner had a history of such behavior.

The female supervisor, the complaint alleges, has been fired by the previous franchise owner TCR Enterprises. She was allegedly let go for terminating Brian Tucker, one of the plaintiffs, for complaining about her boyfriend at the time who also worked at the McDonald’s. After complaining to TCR Enterprises, Tucker was rehired with reduction in pay and no compensation for the two months he was unemployed, according to the complaint filed Thursday.

When Soweva took over the franchise in December 2013, one man was appointed the supervisor of all three restaurants. The male supervisor rehired Lambert as “assistant supervisor”. Five months later, in May 2014, nine of the plaintiffs were let go.

Stanfield says the new owner, Michael Simon, met with her and let her go. She was so shocked she didn’t even ask any questions, she said.

“He also told me he would give me a good reference because I was a good worker, but being a good worker didn’t matter. I was getting fired for being black,” she said. “After losing my job at McDonald’s I really struggled to find work and was unemployed for nearly five months.”

According to the complaint, Soweva contested unemployment benefits for all terminated employees.

Stanfield, who is 32 years old and a mother of two, slowly began to fall behind on her bills and feared that she might lose her home.

“It was really difficult for me to be unable to support my family. I couldn’t even buy my children clothes for school,” she said on the call.

Christina Chadwick is the only plaintiff who was not terminated, but quit on her own. Chadwick, who is hispanic but not of Mexican descent, was often referred to as the “dirty Mexican” or “hot Mexican”, the complaint alleges. Tired of the abuse, Chadwick quit at the beginning of July 2014.

While none of the plaintiffs have participated in the protests for higher wages and the right to unionize prior to being fired, they believe that had they been part of the union all of this could’ve been avoided.

“If we had the right to a union, we would have been able to demand that our supervisors stop harassing us because of our race or for being a woman, and wouldn’t have been left to fend for ourselves after being fired,” says Stanfield, who hopes that the complaint filed on her behalf will encourage other workers to come forward. Stanfield says that she herself called McDonald’s corporate hotline after she was terminated, leaving a detailed message, but never heard back.

So that similar complaints don’t go ignored, the Fight for $15 movement launched a toll-free national hotline for McDonald’s workers: the number is (855) 729-2869 FREE.

“This lawsuit is Exhibit A for why workers at McDonalds need the right to a union. The alleged details of discrimination are horrific, but what is also disturbing is that the workers had no place to turn,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “When they brought their complaints to McDonald’s corporate, they were told to take their case to the very franchisee who fired them.”

The lawyers representing the terminated workers believe that in addition to the franchisee owner, the McDonald’s corporation can also be held accountable for both happened before and after the employees were terminated.

“Given its control and authority over franchises, we believe that McDonald’s could have put policies in place to stop what the plaintiffs endured from happening, or at least made it right after the employees brought it to their attention,” said Paul Smith, attorney with Patterson Harkavy LLP, the firm representing the workers.

McDonald’s does exercise control over its franchises, insists Smith. The corporation issues number of policies that the franchisers have to follow ranging from how to use the computer systems to how and when to schedule workers. Smith also points out that franchise owners, managers and supervisors undergo “rigorous training on how to follow corporate directives on matters that include discrimination, diversity and harassment.”

“McDonald’s corporate is apparently trying to have best of both worlds ... all the control and profit, and none of the responsibility,” he says. “Unfortunately for McDonald’s, we don’t think the law works that way.”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Workers Called “Lazy, Stupid Africans” Awarded $15M In Discrimination Suit

by Stephen Crockett, Feb. 13, 2015

Seven workers at a trucking company in Denver filed a lawsuit in 2010 claiming that managers called black workers “lazy, stupid Africans” and segregated them from white workers.    

Seven Denver warehouse workers were awarded some $15 million after a federal judge found that bosses separated the blacks from other workers because of their race and called them n--gers and "lazy, stupid Africans."

The judge also found that managers at Matheson Trucking and Matheson Flight Extenders Inc. discriminated against the workers "in all phases of employment, including hiring, termination, conditions of employment, promotion, vacation pay, furlough, discipline, work shifts, benefits and wages," the Daily Mail notes.

According to the Denver Post, many of the plaintiffs were from the African country of Mali, one was from Brazil and another was a white whistleblower, who was dubbed "the tribe's assistant" and ultimately lost his job after he complained about the treatment of his co-workers.

"Basically, I did the right thing. This isn't 1960 anymore," Dean Patricelli, the white employee, told the Denver Post.

The other plaintiffs in the lawsuit were Ernie Duke, Mahamet Camara, Andre De Oliveira, Bemba Diallo, Salif Diallo and Macire Diarra.

The Denver Post reports that managers at Matheson, a Sacramento, Calif., company that moves large quantities of mail for the U.S. Postal Service and FedEx, forced blacks to work on one side of the warehouse, while whites worked on the other. The lawsuit filed by the workers also claimed that supervisors not only called the black employees racist names but allowed white employees to do the same, and that prime days on which workers could make double pay were given to white workers regardless of seniority.

On one occasion, the Daily Mail notes, "an employee yelled that all black people should be shot."

The verdict, which was handed down Wednesday, "includes $13 million in punitive damages, $318,000 in back pay for workers who were fired for being black and another $650,000 for emotional distress," according to the Denver Post.

Stacey Campbell, an attorney for Matheson, says the company "prides itself on hiring and employing a highly diverse workforce consisting of men and women of different races and cultures" and plans to appeal the decision, according to the Post.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Wall Street Whistleblowers: After The Largest Leak In Banking History, Are They Safe?

by Owen Davis, Feb. 9, 2015

In the largest leak ever to hit the banking industry, a whistleblower exposed the tax-dodging practices of HSBC's Swiss branch. Could he have done so in the U.S.? Reuters/Luke MacGregor

For seven years, Hervé Falciani was on the lam, playing cat-and-mouse with Swiss police as he hopped surreptitiously across European borders. He drove rented cars and wore eccentric disguises, fancying himself a sort of James Bond-style operative. He found strategic allies among French and Spanish authorities and reportedly courted the U.S. Department of Justice before being arrested in Barcelona in 2012.

Falciani’s contraband: a cache of secret documents he acquired while working for the private Swiss branch of U.K. banking giant HSBC. The release during the weekend of a report based on Falciani’s cache provides a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the Swiss banking system, widely regarded as an international tax haven. Falciani has since been released and remains in legal limbo.

But the fact that it took seven years for the biggest banking industry leak in history to become public raises questions about the state of financial whistleblower protections. Would Falciani have had an easier time of it in the U.S.?

“There’s a lot of talk about how the Obama administration has been hard on whistleblowers,” said Kate Kenny, a researcher at Queen’s University Management School in Belfast, referring to the administration’s unprecedented use of the Espionage Act to prosecute national security whistleblowers. “But you have to ask, ‘Which sector?’ In financial services, it’s gotten much better.”

Though it may come as a surprise, the life of the American financial whistleblower has nominally improved in the past five years. Experts say the U.S. has some of the strongest whistleblower protections in the world.

“In terms of legal rights, this is the golden era for financial whistleblowers,” said Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, who has worked with more than 6,000 whistleblowers in his career. The Dodd-Frank Act, crafted in response to the institutional failures that culminated in the 2008 financial crisis, created a raft of provisions to incentivize employees to report abuses both internally and to authorities.

Employers are barred from retaliating against employees who lawfully report perceived wrongdoing. Whistleblowers whose tips lead to settlements may qualify for hefty awards. Last year, the Securities and Exchange Commission set a record with a $30 million payout to an individual central to the Bank of America mortgage fraud settlement.

If he were American, however, Falciani still may have faced risks -- less likely from the government than from the employer. “It’s a common phenomenon in the U.S. for corporations to seek civil or criminal prosecution of whistleblowers for stealing evidence,” Levine said. Even with stronger-than-ever anti-retaliation protections in place, Levine said, “the incidence of retaliation has actually increased sharply.”

In 2012, the Ethics Resource Center reported the incidence of employees facing retaliation had nearly doubled. And studies have found workers in the financial sector are among the least likely in any field to report on wrongdoing for fear of recrimination. Meanwhile, firms in the private sector have instituted more and greater rules against public disclosure, using contracts to pressure employees into silence.

And therein lies a crucial gap in the law, the Government Accountability Project argued in a letter to U.S. legislators. The section in Dodd-Frank that protects financial whistleblowers does not include a so-called anti-gag provision, as many other whistleblower statutes do. 

The loophole potentially allows companies’ internal secrecy policies to override SEC assurances. As companies erect ever-steeper nondisclosure policies, pending legal battles will determine how -- and whether -- the SEC’s whistleblower protections stack up against corporate secrecy rules.

“With a barrage of stronger legal rights, whistleblowers pose an ever greater threat to corporations engaging in questionable conduct,” says Devine. “It’s become: harass first and ask questions later.”

Still, the SEC logged the most whistleblower tips last year -- 3,620, according to a 2014 report. And the department awarded nine individuals in 2014, more than in the previous three years combined.

But whether this actually will lead to more investigations also remains an open question. Representatives with the SEC declined to say how many ongoing investigations resulted from whistleblower tips. Neither could the agency make any indication as to the percentage of tips that are legally actionable.

“All these tips, why aren’t there more investigations?” Devine asked.

The answer could lie in the fact that the cases take years to play out. “The SEC has explained that there’s a very active, unprecedented docket,” Devine said. “But we have to be patient.”

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Discrimination 50 Years After Selma: We're Not Lovin' It

by Rev. Kevin Chandler

With all the attention on the new film Selma, Americans might have the impression that the story of ordinary people standing together to fight for change is a thing of the past.

As a minister in southern Virginia, I am sorry to report that even in some of the largest and best known corporations in America, the blatant discrimination the civil rights movement fought against is still alive and well.

Take McDonald's as an example. Last year, several African American workers from a McDonald's here in South Boston, Virginia, approached me to report rampant racism that sounded like it came from 50 years ago. These workers were part of a group of workers who were fired, all at the same time, after being told by management that they did not "fit the profile" desired at the store.

The firings followed months of racial harassment in which those supervisors had told them that it was time to "get the ghetto out of the store."

bAs president of the local NAACP chapter, I offered to help them in any way I could. You might think that McDonald's executives would have had the same reaction, but apparently not.

Several workers contacted McDonald's corporate offices, but were told to appeal to the franchise owner instead -- the same franchise that had just fired them because of their race.

The firings were covered by local media, and a McDonald's corporate representative learned more about them during a regularly scheduled inspection of the store, but the company still took no action to restore the workers' jobs.

Just as elected officials in the Selma film hid behind claims that they weren't responsible for discrimination by local officials over whom they supposedly had no control, top McDonald's executives say they can't be held accountable for racism at what they call "franchises."

This legal fig leaf has already been rejected by the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board in a case involving McDonald's violation of workers' right to form a union. The company tightly controls and monitors its franchises' employment practices, the General Counsel found.

As Brian Tucker, one of the workers, said,

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.

When Mr. Tucker was called in to speak to the owner, he put on his Sunday suit because he thought he was being promoted. Instead, he was fired for being black, just like his coworkers.

Companies like McDonald's advertise heavily in black neighborhoods and make sure to contribute support to black organizations and black leaders. You may have noticed that as sales decline, McDonald's has a new advertising campaign with a series of images designed to connect the company with values that are popular throughout the country such as patriotism, religious faith, good jobs, and civic pride.

But behind the gloss and the rhetoric we see a reality that has not changed much from days gone by. Companies like McDonald's might value black customers to boost their bottom line, but they still turn their back when workers face racism and discrimination on the job.

Fired McDonald's workers in my community have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the company. They have the full support of the South Boston NAACP, along with other civil rights organizations including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Many of us have been inspired by the Selma movie because it is such a vivid reminder of what Americans can accomplish when we join together and hold powerful forces accountable to do the right thing.

Today, fast food workers and many other Americans are applying that lesson to the discrimination, intimidation, and abuse that are still with us, whether it's in a giant corporation like McDonald's or anywhere else we find it.