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Black workers at Rock Island McDonald’s file civil rights lawsuit

Published: Oct. 13, 2020 at 4:30 PM CDT
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ROCK ISLAND, Ill. (KWQC) - Three Black McDonald’s workers on Tuesday filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the company, claiming managers at a Rock Island store denigrated Black cooks and cashiers and retaliated against workers who spoke out.

Chicago-based attorney George A. Luscombe III filed a 23-page complaint in U.S. District Court, Rock Island, on behalf of crew members Selynda Middlebrook, Stephanie Stevens, and Luther Gray on behalf of his teenaged daughter, who also works at the restaurant.

The suit names McDonald’s Corporation, McDonald’s USA, LLC, and Gendco, Inc., the owner of the McDonald’s franchise restaurant, as defendants.

“When McDonald’s says ‘Black Lives Matter,’ those words are hollow because if Black Lives Matter to McDonald’s, and as a black mother, I shouldn’t have been discriminated against and told that I shouldn’t exist,” Selynda Middlebrook, a plaintiff in the suit, said during a virtual press conference Tuesday.

“That’s why I’m coming forward today to make my voice heard. McDonald’s needs to do more than say ‘Black Lives Matter.’ McDonald’s needs to show us, and that starts in its stores and with black employees.”

Watch the press conference here:

McDonald’s franchisee Trina Gendron said in a statement to TV6 that “I am deeply committed to running a values-led organization, and discrimination, harassment or retaliation of any kind are not tolerated in my restaurants.”

“I take these allegations seriously and am currently reviewing the complaint and investigating these allegations,” she said.

According to a media release, the complaint alleges:

  • On multiple occasions, managers, including a white general manager, called Black employees “ghetto” and “lazy” and stated that a Black worker smelled, and they did not want her to come into work. Black employees also faced disproportionate and discriminatory enforcement of dress codes and discipline compared with white workers.
  • This year, the white general manager reduced the number of shifts and hours of work for many Black workers, including the teenage worker and Middlebrook, resulting in a substantial loss of income while other non-Black employees were not subject to equivalent reductions.
  • Middlebrook had her time cut down to one shift of approximately four hours per week at $10.00 per hour, leaving her with just $40 a week to support herself and her newborn daughter.
  • The general manager created a list comprised almost entirely of Black employees — including the teenage worker and Middlebrook — who were barred from working additional hours, claiming they had a “wrong… attitude” and were “not... able to do their simple tasks.”
  • A manager told the teenage worker evening shift employees had their hours cut because most were Black.
  • Persistent harassment and abuse of Black workers led to the termination of Stevens and forced Middlebrook to leave McDonald’s.
  • On or about July 21, in the presence of restaurant employees, the general manager referred to Middlebrook as a “waste of space” and said she “shouldn’t even exist.” After hearing about the comment, Stevens told the general manager she should not speak about employees in such a discriminatory and demeaning manner. Stevens was terminated on the spot for speaking out to protest mistreatment – while other non-Black employees were not disciplined for voicing their opinions, according to the release.

“While not unique, the experiences of Ms. Middlebrook, Ms. Stevens, and (the teenage worker) are egregious examples of the serious harm that occurs when a corporation fails to take responsibility for the discriminatory conduct of its managers, and subjects Black workers to pervasive and intentional racial discrimination,” according to the complaint.

Middlebrook said it made her "sick to my stomach to be described by my manager as not even worth being alive.”

“We are sick and tired of being considered less than human and not even worthy of life. But it wasn’t just words. McDonald’s cut black worker schedules and, ultimately, my ability to provide food and housing for my baby. The white General Manager put mostly black workers on the list of employees that were prohibited from taking extra work hours, because we supposedly had a wrong attitude, and we’re not able to do simple tasks.”

Luscombe said the alleged situation at the Rock Island store is "symptomatic of a pattern of McDonald’s corporate leadership’s failure to address pervasive racism and anti-Black sentiment throughout the organization.”

He pointed to a similar civil rights lawsuit filed in Florida.

Stevens said, “I have no regrets about speaking out for what’s right, especially when I know we’re not alone.”

“Workers across the country are demanding respect on the job and a safe and fair work environment. Black workers like us are standing up against discrimination and calling on corporations like McDonald’s to back up their words with real actions. We’re calling for a voice on the job because no one should be fired for speaking up against racism. Until then, we’ll keep fighting and doing what it takes for McDonald’s to show we really do care.”

The workers are seeking an injunction forcing McDonald’s to “comply with federal civil rights laws and to respect the rights of their Black workers,” as well as damages for past and future lost wages and benefits, compensation for past and future physical and emotional distress and trauma, punitive damages and legal costs, according to the release.

As of Tuesday, the defendants have not filed a response in court.

A drive-by protest also was held at the store Tuesday.

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