Fast-food protests shift focus to ‘wage theft’

NEW YORK — Organizers of the fast-food protests for higher wages on Tuesday shifted their sights to another issue affecting workers: practices they say amount to “wage theft.”

Protesters were set to rally outside McDonald’s restaurants in cities including Boston, Chicago and Miami to call attention to the denial of overtime pay and other violations they say deprive workers of the money they’re owed.

McDonald’s said in a statement its restaurants remain open “today — and every day — thanks to the teams of dedicated employees serving our customers.””

The actions are part of an ongoing campaign by union organizers to build public support for a higher wages. The Service Employees International Union has been providing financial and organizational support for the push, which began in late 2012. A series of protests since then calling for pay of $15 an hour has captured national media attention and served as a backdrop for President Obama’s push to raise the federal minimum wage.

On Tuesday, organizers said rallies were planned for about 30 cities, but it wasn’t clear how significant the turnout would be at various locations. In New York, roughly 50 protesters streamed into a McDonald’s across the street from the Empire State Building around noon, surprising some customers inside. They managed to chant for a few minutes before being kicked out by police. It wasn’t clear how many protesters were fast-food workers, rather than campaign organizers or supporters.

Once back outside the restaurants, members of the group took turns speaking before a large gathering of TV cameras and other media. New York City public advocate Tish James arrived and voiced her support while standing next to a protester dressed as a villainous Ronald McDonald.

“It’s hard enough for fast-food workers to survive in this economy,” James said before saying she would introduce legislation to establish a hotline to report “wage theft.”

It was a far smaller showing than other protests over the past year. Still, the latest rallies reflect the push by labor groups to keep continued pressure on the issue of worker pay.

In Los Angeles, a crowd of 50 also turned up at a McDonald’s for a demonstration that lasted about a half-hour. The group held a brief press conference outside before marching inside with banners and signs; demonstrators weren’t asked to leave.

The demonstrations are a follow-up to lawsuits filed last week in three states on behalf of workers, who said they had their wages stolen by McDonald’s and its franchisees. Workers said money was deducted from their paychecks for their uniforms and that they were sometimes made to wait around before they could clock in, according to the lawsuits.

The workers were referred to attorneys by the organizers of the fast-food protests.

McDonald’s, which has more than 14,000 U.S. locations, has said it will investigate the allegations and take any necessary action.

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