A federal labor judge ordered the reinstatement of four McDonald’s workers laid off by a Connecticut franchisee in 2020, sending a warning shot to employers who use the pandemic as a pretense to purge union activists.
The workers, who had participated in a public union campaign before the pandemic, were furloughed in early 2020 from a McDonald’s Corp. restaurant at an Interstate 95 service plaza in Darien, Conn., as Covid-19 disrupted travel.
Many of their colleagues were furloughed as well. But their employer, Michell Enterprises, a franchise company that owns several McDonald’s restaurants in the Northeast, called back furloughed workers a few weeks later—except for the four union supporters.
In a lengthy opinion, National Labor Relations Board Administrative Law Judge Donna Dawson suggested the workers were unlawfully fired, ordering that they be reinstated and provided with back pay. She wrote that the employer “kept track of and were aware of various union rallies, events and press releases which included quotations and even photographs” of the four union supporters.
“I find based on the totality of the circumstances, including the almost complete unreliability of Respondent’s witnesses, that their arguments are without merit and that their reasons for its actions are based on pretext,” the judge added.
The workers are backed by Service Employees International Union 32BJ as part of a broader effort to organize workers under multiple brands at Connecticut highway rest areas, as organized labor seeks a crucial foothold at McDonald’s and other fast-food chains. Three of the workers also filed a lawsuit in Connecticut Superior Court under a state law requiring employers to re-hire laid-off pandemic workers before replacing them.
SEIU has taken on McDonald’s under the banner of Fight for $15 labor campaign, waging a legal battle over whether the company shared responsibility for labor law violations committed by franchisees and contractors. The NLRB in 2019 approved a $170,000 settlement with McDonald’s over its potential liability as a joint employer for alleged unfair labor practices, an outcome that was seen as a victory for the company.
Representatives for McDonald’s Corp. and an attorney for Michell Enterprises didn’t immediately respond to emails seeking comment.