Last week, after filing class-action lawsuits against McDonald’s in several states, fast-food workers joined a 30-day protest against the company, demanding that it stop its illegal theft of workers’ wages.

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James has sided with the workers in the protest.

“It’s hard enough for low-wage workers to survive in this economy. It’s practically impossible to do so while your wages are being stolen,” said James in a statement. “The instances of wage theft in New York City and around the country are becoming too many to ignore. My office will establish a hotline for whistle-blowers to report wage theft, and we will empower city agencies with the ability to investigate those claims.”

James also announced her office’s major new initiative to confront wage theft in the fast-food industry, calling for legislation to create an anonymous hotline for workers to report incidents and to give city agencies expanded authority to investigate wage theft violations.

In New York, the class-action case filed in federal court is an attempt to redress failures to reimburse McDonald’s employees in New York stores for the time and cost of cleaning uniforms. The plaintiffs in the suit contend that McDonald’s failure at reimbursing employees for uniform cleaning violates the state of New York’s requirement to pay workers weekly for uniform maintenance. They also claim it violates federal and state minimum wage laws. 

McDonald’s requires employees to keep their uniforms clean.

“When I first came to this country from El Salvador 14 years ago, I never dreamed that I’d still be living in poverty today,” said McDonald’s employee Rosa Rivera, 47, in a statement. Rivera works 20 to 30 hours a week. “I’ve spent the last 14 years working at McDonald’s while raising three kids. Yet after all that time, I’m still making less than minimum wage because of wage theft. I’ve washed my uniform multiple times a week for years, all on my own dime … The law says I should be getting an extra $7.85 to help recoup the cost of trips to the Laundromat, but that never happens.

“Without that, I’m actually making less than minimum wage every week,” Rivera continued. “I’ve probably lost thousands over my 14 years at McDonald’s due to this type of theft.”

The same day that workers announced their month-long protest, New York state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced an almost $500,000 settlement with seven New York City-based McDonald’s franchises and their owner, Richard Cisneros, for failing to pay legally required laundry allowances for many employees, for uncompensated work time and for unlawful deductions from wages that resulted from times when cashiers were required to cover cash register shortfalls. The settlement money, which includes damages and interest, will go to more than 1,600 workers, most of whom are minimum-wage workers.

“Like every other business in New York state, fast-food employers must follow our labor laws,” said Schneiderman in a statement. “Our lowest wage workers deserve the same protections of the law as everyone else. It’s critical for them and for their families, as well as for our economy, that we remain vigilant so that no New Yorkers are cheated out of their hard-won earnings.”  

Jonathan Westin, director of the group Fast Food Forward, praised Schneiderman for his work in the settlement but acknowledged that more work is needed to be done to satisfy him and the workers he advocates for.

“Although this settlement is with just one large franchise owner, McDonald’s cannot hide from its responsibility for these unlawful practices,” said Westin in a statement. “Evidence in suits filed last week in California and Michigan shows that McDonald’s exerts control over the daily operations at its franchise restaurants, making it just as responsible for the illegal pay practices. McDonald’s made nearly $5.6 billion in profits last year, enriching itself on the backs of workers who simply cannot afford to have their wages stolen.” 

The seven McDonald’s restaurants involved in the settlement are all in Manhattan, located at 280 Madison Ave., 1499 Third Ave., 1872-74 Third Ave., 809 Sixth Ave., 427 10th Ave., 871 Second Ave., and 18 E. 42nd St.