An Epidemic Of Wage Violations Is Hurting Fast Food Workers

Low-wage fast food workers are being threatened by an unprecedented epidemic of wage and hour violations. It’s hard and thankless work. The least your employer can do is pay you for it.

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Fast food giant McDonald’s has seen its share of legal trouble over the last few years. Beyond complaints filed by irate customers, the global chain has been hit with numerous lawsuits brought by current and former employees, many of whom say the undisputed fast food leader is breaking state and federal labor laws.

During one week of 2013, McDonald’s saw three class actions filed by workers who said they were denied meal and rest breaks, forced to work “off-the-clock” and had to pay for their own uniform cleanings.

How Do Fast Food Chains Rake In Billions? By Cheating Workers Out Of Pay.

Similar lawsuits, and numerous high-value settlements, suggest that wage and hour violations are rampant throughout the fast food industry.

In October of 2015, the Huffington Post reported on four Papa John’s franchisees who agreed to compensate workers in New York to the tune of nearly $500,000. While many major wage and hour lawsuits end in undisclosed settlements, all four of the Papa John’s owners admitted to violating federal minimum wage and overtime laws.

Facing boycotts for its open denunciation of the LGBTQ community, Chick-fil-A is another chain that doesn’t seem very friendly to its own workers. For one, the Southern franchise is a notorious union-buster, depriving most employees of the right to organize. Second, hourly wages are incredibly low. Cashiers make an average of $8.27 per hour; kitchen staff make only $0.10 more than that, according to wages reported on

But most troubling, and quite possibly illegal, are recent allegations that many Chick-fil-A franchises aren’t paying workers for training sessions, taking out the trash and other so-called “side work” tasks.

How Employees Fight Back

While many businesses rely on complex accounting tricks to rob money from their employees, fast food employers seem to take the easy route and just deny workers their hard-earned pay. In many cases, that’s a direct violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a federal law that:

  • defines the federally-mandated minimum wage (currently $7.25 per hour)
  • outlines who makes overtime pay and at what rate (1.5 times your regular wage for all hours worked over 40 in a week)
  • outlaws most forms of child labor

The FLSA also makes it clear that all US workers must be paid for the work they do – all of it. Whether or not a supervisor told you to do something, if the business can expect to benefit from your labor and should be aware that you’re doing it, that’s money in your pocket.

But that doesn’t mean all employers are following federal law. Major corporations get away with wage and hour violations all the time. That’s especially true in the restaurant industry, which the US Department of Labor often has difficulty penalizing due to the legal intricacies of franchising.

If they hope to make back any of the money that’s been stolen, most fast food workers have to file their own civil lawsuits.

Fast Food Makes Millions Stealing From Employees

Fast food franchises seem to be tarnished by every conceivable wage and hour violation, from failing to pay workers at least the federal minimum wage to denying them earned overtime.

French Fries

In their 2009 report Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers, researchers at the National Employment Law Project found that 25% of restaurant workers were being victimized by wage theft, violations of state and federal labor laws that rob them of the money they’ve earned. For specific types of wage theft, that proportion skyrocketed. For example, an overwhelming 69.7% of restaurant workers were affected by at least one overtime violation in the week they were surveyed.

Working “Off The Clock”

Even more widespread were so-called “off the clock” violations, when workers perform job-related duties before or after their shift begins, but don’t get paid for it. 3 out of every 4 of the restaurant employees polled had been forced to work “off the clock” without compensation.

Sometimes, the line between “on the clock” and “off the clock” work can seem fuzzy. Take training sessions. You’re learning how to work, not working, right? Wrong. The vast majority of training sessions, even those taken online, count as worked hours and employees should be getting paid for that time. In fact, unless a training session happens outside of normal work hours, is taken voluntarily by a worker and covers material totally unrelated to their job, it’s time they should be paid for.

Cleaning, taking out the trash, brewing coffee in the morning, sorting condiments – if it’s work, employees should be compensated for it.

Big Franchisers Won’t Be Free From Liability Much Longer

Meanwhile, federal regulators are trying to make it easier for wronged employees to sue both their immediate bosses and the corporate giants hording profits.

Most fast food restaurants are considered “franchises,” a legal definition that gives corporate offices a degree of immunity from federal wage and hour claims. That changed, however, when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that many workers at franchise restaurants are actually “jointly employed.” They work both for the franchisee and for the huge parent company, which means parent companies could be on the hook for any labor violations.

The change will be a boon to federal regulators, too. When franchising separated individual stores from major parent corporations, Labor Department officials were forced to investigate franchise locations separately.

That took time, money and prevented any penalties from forcing sweeping changes in corporate culture. The only time parent companies came into play at all was when hard evidence of systemic wrongdoing could be found. That happened in 2014 for Subway, purveyor of submarine sandwiches and largest restaurant company in the world. Subway franchisees committed around 17,000 confirmed violations of federal wage law between 2000 and 2013, a CNNMoney investigation found.

Before partnering with the Department of Labor to clean up its act, Subway violated the FLSA more than McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts, who fill out the list of top fast food labor law violators.

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Thank you! It was such a relief to know that Wage Advocates were working hard to get me compensation for my unpaid overtime."
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