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 also alleged wrongful termination in the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Virginia.
Soweva began operating the restaurants at the end of 2013.
Among other claims, the workers said Soweva supervisors told the mostly African-American staff it was "too dark" in the restaurants, and that it was necessary to replace employees to "get the ghetto out of the store."
Plaintiff Katrina Stanfield, speaking on a conference call with reporters, said one supervisor touched workers inappropriately and sent them naked photos of himself.
When she complained about the discrimination and dismissals to McDonald's corporate office, Stanfield said she received no response.
"I still don't understand why McDonald's did nothing," Stanfield said.
A worker in one of Simon's restaurants referred Reuters to McDonald's Corp, which declined to comment on the allegations and said it would review the matter.
"McDonald's has a long-standing history of embracing the diversity ... and discrimination is completely inconsistent with our values," the company said in a statement.
The lawsuit alleged that McDonald's 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 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.