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McDonald’s workers file lawsuit for ‘stolen’ wages

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(Read caption) A McDonald's Big Mac sandwich at a McDonald's restaurant in Robinson Township, Pa., Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. Several lawsuits being filed against McDonald's say the fast-food chain engages in a variety of practices to avoid paying workers what they're owed.

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Low-wage workers and their advocates have worked every angle to bring attention to their fight for better pay, from staging worker walkouts and street demonstrations to outlining the tax burden created when corporations like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart fail to pay their workers enough to live on without public assistance. Now, they’re taking their cause to the courts.

Thursday, McDonald’s workers in California, Michigan, and New York filed class-action lawsuits against the hamburger chain and some of its franchisees in those states, alleging that the company is using certain tactics to “steal” worker wages. Among them: forcing employees to work off the clock, taking hours off their timecards, and refusing to pay overtime.

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“We’ve uncovered several unlawful schemes, but they all share a common purpose – to drive labor costs down by stealing wages from McDonald’s workers,” Michael Rubin of Altshuler Berzon LLP, the attorney who filed the California suits, said in a press statement announcing the suits. “These McDonald’s workers have courageously stepped forward to shine a light on these illegal practices, and already we’ve begun to hear from several co-workers with similar wage theft claims.”

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In Michigan, the lawsuit accuses two Detroit-area franchisees of making workers show up and wait up to an hour before clocking in. It also says that McDonald’s employees have to buy their own uniforms, which pushes the lowest paid among them under the legal minimum wage limit.

The New York suit alleges that the franchisees also won’t pay for employees’ uniform cleaning, which is in violation of a state law.

“The Detroit McDonald’s workers are coming into federal court for themselves and their co-workers because McDonald’s schedules them for work, but then makes them wait off the clock until enough customers arrive," David Dean, the attorney who filed the Michigan suits, said in the release. "Federal law demands they be paid for such waiting time, and McDonald’s Corporation needs to stop tolerating this illegal practice." 

The six suits in total implicate franchisees, but McDonald’s Corp. was included because the sum of the lawsuits indicated that the company failed to pay its workers what they were owed, according to the release.

The suits seek back pay and damages and could affect up to 30,000 workers, according to a conference call organized by the PR firm that helped orchestrate the rash of fast-food worker strikes last year.

The Oak Brook, Ill.-based company said in a press statement that it was looking into the lawsuits and that McDonald’s and its franchisees are  “committed to undertaking a comprehensive investigation of the allegations and will take any necessary actions as they apply to our respective organizations."

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The announcement comes the same day President Obama signed a memo directing the Labor Department to devise new rules for overtime pay that would make salaried workers who earn more than $455 per week eligible. 

The McDonald’s suits are the latest in a series of attempts to bring wider awareness to issue of low worker pay. Over the summer, workers at several fast-food chains, including Wendy’s and McDonald’s, went on strike demanding health benefits and a $15 minimum wage. Wal-Mart workers have staged strikes during each of the last two Black Fridays. There was a push last fall to focus the issue as one affecting all taxpayers – the University of Illinois and the University of California and Berkely released a study in October finding that fast-food workers in the US draw nearly $7 billion annually in taxpayer-funded federal aid from food stamps, Medicare, and other programs.