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Black employees sue McDonald’s for discrimination in Tampa court

The federal civil rights lawsuit describes fast-food restaurant as a 'racially hostile work environment.'

TAMPA ― Three Black McDonald’s employees filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the fast-food chain Friday, claiming they were subjected to months of racist comments and retaliation by the general manager of a Lakeland restaurant.

The three employees say that not only did their manager make disparaging comments about Black employees and customers, but two corporate employees did not take their complaints seriously when they attempted to present a signed petition. The lawsuit, filed by Polk County residents Monica Scott, 34, Augusta “Gus” Moody, 33, and Faith Booker, 32, in Tampa federal court says after being confronted about her racist comments, the manager began cutting the hours of the black workers. It also claims she gave them poor performance reviews and assigned them tasks that don’t fall under their duties, like sweeping the parking lot and cleaning garbage cans and ceiling tiles.

“I’m a mother, raising my children on just $9.25 an hour,” Scott, who has taken on a second job, said during a video news conference. “When my hours were cut, it didn’t just affect the size of my wallet, it put my livelihood and my children’s well-being in jeopardy. I can’t afford to lose pay or work, and now I’ve had to cut back on how much I eat to make sure there’s enough for my kids.”

The lawsuit does not name the manager of the store at 5525 Walt Loop Road, but says she began working at the location in the fall of 2019.

“While not unique, the experiences of Ms. Scott, Mr. Moody, and Ms. Booker are particularly egregious examples of the serious harm that occurs when a corporation fails to take responsibility for the discriminatory conduct of its managers, the complaint says, “and thus permits an environment of pervasive and intentional racial discrimination to take hold at one of its corporate owned and operated restaurants.”

In a statement Friday, McDonald’s said it takes the claims made by the Lakeland workers seriously and will review the complaint and “take actions accordingly.”

“McDonald’s unequivocally stands behind the need for equality and fairness on both sides of the counter in our restaurants, and we do not tolerate discrimination or retaliation of any kind by anyone,” McDonald’s said in the statement. “We stand with Black communities across the globe in our commitment to address unacceptable racial injustices and are disappointed that these allegations do not reflect the high standards we hold ourselves accountable to every day across all areas of our business.”

The chain says it enhanced its discrimination and retaliation policy and training last year. It also says it has an anonymous “Business Integrity Line” with a live operator employees can call 24 hours a day.

Peter Helwig, a Lakeland-based attorney on the case, said the manager’s negative attitude toward Black employees showed itself last year and grew more aggressive over the last few months.

The 32-page complaint says the manager is not black and alleges racist encounters the employees say they witnessed or experienced first-hand. During a free meal promotion for essential workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic, all three employees said they witnessed the manager require Black customers, such as nurses and firefighters, to show proof of employment. The workers say the manager gave free meals to white frontline workers without questions.

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Scott said when a Black customer asked for grape jelly and ketchup to go along with a breakfast order the manager said, “it’s always Black people who want free stuff.” The manager followed up by saying Black people are “aggressive and trying to fight,” and that “all they want to do is smoke weed.”

When Scott later tried to speak to the manager about those comments, she said the manager apologized for offending her but said “you know what I say is true,” according to the lawsuit.

Moody, a cook, says he once asked for help during peak hours as orders were building up. Instead of another employee coming over to help man the grill, Moody says he was told he couldn’t do his job and sent home for the remainder of his shift without pay.

The employees also said while non-Black employees are still working nearly 40 hours a week, their hours have been halved. The manager, they said, blames the pandemic even though there is a “now hiring” sign hanging in the restaurant window.

“She treats Black employees more harshly,” Booker said during the video news conference, “and says hateful things about Black people that made me feel like crying.”

The Black workers wrote up a short petition to present to management on Juneteenth, a day meant to commemorate when enslaved people were emancipated in the United States.

“Employees who are treated unfairly aren’t allowed to achieve workplace success to their fullest potential,” it said. “Allowing workplace unfairness to continue sends the message to employees that this type of behavior is acceptable. We demand management takes steps to keep all employees feeling respected and treated as equals while building a positive work environment.”

The workers said they were told to leave the restaurant. Later, Scott said she was told to scrub garbage cans and Moody said he was given a low performance review that knocked him off course for a promotion.

Related: In aftermath of viral McDonald's fight, workers plan strike to demand training, protection from violence

The lawsuit says that when Moody spoke to a corporate-level human resources employee, he was told the manager wouldn’t be going anywhere because the store was profitable and suggested he could transfer locations. When Scott spoke to another human resources employee about the manager, that person told Scott she knew the manager outside of work and that she was not racist.

McDonald’s was accused of systemic racism in a lawsuit filed earlier this year that is referenced in the claim out of Lakeland.

In January, two Black executives with McDonald’s accused the corporation of passing them over for promotions and ultimately demoting them. That lawsuit was filed in Chicago, where the chain is based. It also described a racist atmosphere that impeded Black employees from advancing in the company.

“It’s bad enough to know you’re risking your life for your paycheck, but imagine adding harassment and a hostile culture on top of that,” Booker said of working during the pandemic. “If McDonald’s believed that Black lives mattered then it’s time to make our restaurant safe for Black workers and customers.”

All three employees say they still work at the Lakeland location.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to properly attribute its last quote to Faith Booker, not Monica Scott as previously reported.

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