Former McDonald's Corp workers in Virginia filed a civil rights lawsuit Thursday against the world's largest fast-food chain and owner of restaurants where they worked in the latest bid to hold it legally responsible for the actions of its franchisees.
Nine African-American and one Hispanic worker claimed they were subjected to "rampant racial and sexual harassment" by supervisors at three restaurants run by McDonald's franchisee Michael Simon, who operates as Soweva Co.
The workers are also claiming wrongful termination in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Virginia.
Soweva began operating the restaurants at the end of 2013.
Among other things, the workers who were fired claimed that Soweva supervisors told the mostly African-American staff that it was "too dark" in the restaurants, and that they needed to replace staff to "get the ghetto out of the store."
The workers said they had complained about the discrimination and their dismissals to McDonald's corporate office, but that the company did nothing.
A worker in one of Simon's restaurants referred Reuters to McDonald's for comment. Representatives from the chain did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The lawsuit alleged that McDonald's Corp has control over nearly every aspect of its franchised restaurants' operations, including hiring, firing, wage-setting, scheduling, training and discipline.
Paul Smith, an associate at Patterson Harkavy LLP who represents the workers, said courts look to the degree of control and authority over franchisee operations when determining if a franchisor is a joint employer.
About a month ago, the general counsel of the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed a complaint against McDonald's Corp, which could hold it liable for violations by its franchisees. Restaurant workers from across the country claimed they were fired or intimidated for participating in union activities or in protests for higher wages.
The outcome of those cases could affect a wide swath of industries, including hotel chains, manufacturers and construction firms.
Pending class-action lawsuits filed last year in California, Michigan and New York also seek to hold McDonald's responsible for alleged wage theft and other violations by franchisees.
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Bernadette Baum)