Peter Brownell addresses demonstrators
A group of advocates for fast-food workers gathered outside a McDonald's restaurant on Main Street in Barrio Logan Tuesday morning, March 18, to protest widespread allegations of wage theft at the company and elsewhere.
Workers say that they've had hours shaved off their time cards, had time worked on one day logged on another in order to avoid being paid overtime, and have been forced to start work before clocking in or continue working after clocking out. Some say they have been denied meal breaks, forced to purchase uniforms, or told to clock out during slow times but remain onsite to continue working once business picks up.
Last Thursday, three lawsuits challenging McDonald’s, including one in California, were filed, the opening salvo in what Alor Calderon of the Employee Rights Center promised would be an escalating nationwide campaign.
"It's not just a campaign against McDonald's," said Calderon, who said workers’-rights activists were conducting an "industry-wide search for issues with illegal pay."
The Employee Rights Center and Fight for 15 are seeking more potential plaintiffs to come forward to join the McDonald's suit or to begin to form classes to launch attacks on other fast-food chains.
That may prove to be a difficult task — restaurants have successfully dismissed previous suits by claiming that their franchisees were the ones responsible for recording employee hours and reporting them properly. In the case of McDonald's, however, the corporate parent allegedly has provided franchisees advice on trimming labor costs through such questionable practices as having an employee work through lunch, then clock out and remain on call nearby to clock back in before the dinner rush.
"Each person is entitled to be paid for the work that they do. It's what is fair and what is right and there is no one who should doubt that," said Dr. Beth Johnson from the Interfaith Center for Worker Justice.
"Wage theft is very widespread," added Justin Hewgill, an attorney for the Employee Rights Center, citing a recent survey of fast-food workers in which 84 percent reported having been victimized in at least one of the ways mentioned in the suit.
Raquel Neri, a fast-food worker active in the Fight for 15 movement pushing for a $15 minimum wage, said through a translator that she had frequently been asked to continue working after clocking out and that her work hours had been incorrectly recorded in order to avoid paying her overtime.
"We found in our most recent study that 38 percent of households in San Diego can't meet basic needs," said Dr. Peter Brownell, research director at the Center on Policy Initiatives, adding that the local figures jumped to over 50 percent when talking specifically about food-service workers. "That's the situation for workers. On the other hand, the fast-food industry is booming — McDonald's made five-and-a-half billion dollars in profit in 2012 alone."