McDonald’s workers celebrate a wage victory at state plazas
Loud shouts and cheers of “32BJ” could be heard in the middle of the day Thursday at the Darien northbound service plaza on Interstate 95, where two dozen current and former McDonald’s workers, along with union and political leaders, celebrated a wage victory.
After a year-long inquiry, the state Department of Labor announced late Wednesday it had recovered $870,541 in disputed pay from Michell Enterprises LLC, of New Canaan, owner of three McDonald’s locations at Darien and Fairfield service plazas.
The state distributed the money to 264 past and present employees in checks, ranging from about $14 to $12,496.
The payments stemmed from complaints filed with the state by Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ. The union does not represent the workers but has been trying to organize nearly 1,000 of them across the state’s 23 service plazas — at franchises including McDonald’s, Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts and Alltown.
At the hour-long, upbeat rally, billed as a pre-Labor Day event, some workers held large bright yellow posters saying “32BJ SEIU Stronger Together” in purple letters. Others displayed signs on the backs of their cars with messages that said “Essential workers, not expendable workers!” and “No economic justice without racial justice.”
But despite the broad rallying cries, this dispute was over a narrow interpretation of state law — not the company’s treatment of workers or disputes such overtime or contested terminations.
At issue was whether workers at food outlets and other businesses located on state-owned service plazas are entitled to wages as if they worked for state vendors. Under state contracting rules, full benefits or the “standard wage,” generally about $3 over minimum wage, must be paid to employees of most direct state contractors.
This case was complicated by the fact that McDonald’s and the other retailers are not working for the state. They lease space from a master contracting firm, which made millions of dollars in improvements and pays the state Department of Transportation.
The Department of Labor ordered back pay a tthe standard wage rate going back two years. The department also levied a fine against Michell totaling $35,800.
“A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work is the minimum responsibility of an employer,” Kurt Westby, Connecticut’s labor commissioner, said in a written statement. “I’m pleased that once presented with the issue at hand Michell Enterprises LLC honored that responsibility, paid the back wages they owed and corrected and made right by their workers.”
Westby is a former head of SEIU Local 32BJ in Connecticut.
Other businesses at state-owned service plazas, including several other McDonald’s locations, could now be subject to a similar ruling — totaling millions of dollars in back pay. The union has filed similar complaints against several of the retailers.
A message left for Michell was not returned. The business owns McDonald’s franchises in Bloomfield and Newington and in Massachusetts, New York state and New Jersey, its website said.
Workers in the service plazas, speaking though the union, have said conditions have deteriorated during the coronavirus crisis — and the union has filed complaints about many of those allegations, leaders of Local 32BJ said.
Mario Franco of Stamford said he was laid off in March from McDonald’s at the Darien service center, where he was employed as kitchen manager. He said he was at the rally to fight for fair wages and treatment by employers.
“Let the fight continue. It’s not for me only,” he said at the hour-long rally, billed as a pre-Labor Day event. “Let’s fight this for everybody.”
Elected officials at the rally included state Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk; state Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, a former union leader; state Rep. and Labor Committee co-chair Robyn Porter, D-New Haven; and state Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford.
“Teamwork makes the dreamwork,” Porter said. “We may be outnumbered when it comes to dollars, but we will never be outnumbered when it comes to sense — and that’s common sense — and what’s happening today here is common sense.”
She added that while she believes the checks received by the workers are a good step, “let us not get weary and let us not think that this is the time to rest, because it is not. Now is the time to put forth more energy and more fight than we have ever done before.”
She said her message to every employer in Connecticut is: “Obey the laws. Don’t break the laws.”
Blumenthal said this is just “one battle in a long campaign that employers here in the state of Connecticut respect their workers, treat them with dignity, pay them fairly and respect the law — that’s all we’re asking.”
The union alleges that at least seven workers who were involved in the unionization effort were laid off. “We’re thinking it’s not a coincidence,” Blumenthal said. “We’ve been coming to articulate that grievance, that unfairness, and frankly, it seems now that illegality, on behalf of the company that runs the McDonald’s here.”
He added, “Some of these people are the most dedicated and hard working employees here for this company and for this McDonald’s.”
Duff said the workers need the money a lot more than the corporations do.
“For some of the corporations, $900,000 “is a little bit of a rounding error,” Duff said. “But for the workers on the ground who rely on that money they weren’t given, that is money to pay for food, and the rent or the mortgage, to buy sneakers for their kids, maybe enroll them in sports, maybe put a little money away for savings.”
Duff said it’s important to always fight for those on the ground — “Every single day, that they get every single penny that they deserve. We will always have your back.”