Disability rights advocates in wheelchairs held a protest Tuesday in front of the downtown Berkeley McDonald’s at University and Shattuck avenues, against what they said was unlawful discrimination against three of its disabled employees.
The protest came a week after the Legal Aid Society Employ-ment Law Center of San Francisco filed charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Oppor-tunity Commission alleging that their client Lisa Craib, 43, was unfairly dismissed from the restaurant along with her two co-workers because of their developmental disabilities.
Craib, diagnosed with Asper-ger’s Syndrome—a form of autism—worked the 7:30-10 a.m. morning crew, cleaning tables, preparing salads and bussing for almost 21 years
Craib said that shortly after the franchise was sold to a new owner in March, she and two other workers with disabilities—Susan Hanks and Alice McGill—were abruptly fired.
McDonald’s released a statement on behalf of Nick Verghis, the new owner of the McDonald’s franchise, Tuesday, which was similar to the one issued in response to the charges filed last week.
“I have a strict policy prohibiting any form of discrimination in hiring, termination, or any other aspect of employment,” the statement said. “I comply with all applicable laws—including the American Disabilities Act—and continually strive to maintain an environment in which everyone feels valued and accepted. Beyond that, it would be inappropriate to further comment or speculate.”
Calls to Verghis for comment were not returned by press time.
Michael Pachovas, one of about 75 protesters, said he had helped organize the protest to speak out about the plight of the three disabled workers who were fired when the new owner took over the franchise.
“I’m very angry,” he said, carrying a “MacDonald’s Unfair to Labor” placard as he demonstrated in his wheelchair. “It’s such an obvious discriminatory action and for this to happen in a city with its history of civil rights movements is even worse. We want to get a meeting with the manager and find out what this is about.”
Pachovas said Verghis reportedly owned as many as six McDonald’s franchises in the Bay Area.
“I also want to know if, as the parent company, McDonald’s, has anything to say about this,” he said, “if they have any programs to help people with disabilities.”
Calls to Evelyn Sanchez, director of operations for McDonald’s, were not returned by press time.
“Shop somewhere else,” Pachovas called out to customers approaching the restaurant during lunch time. “I eat here on rare occasions, but I won’t come here anymore. I hope no one with a conscience will.”
Peter Mendoza, a Berkeley resident diagnosed with cerebral palsy, sat in front of the restaurant’s glass doors handing out flyers.
“I think what happened in this case was a travesty,” he said. “Lisa was a good employee. She always assisted me and carried my food over to the table. She unwrapped my hamburger so that I could eat it. They deserve to get their jobs back and an apology from the owner. People who own McDonald’s have a lot of money and should comply with the law. I am boycotting McDonald’s and encourage the entire Berkeley community to join the disability community to boycott it as well.”
Inside the fast-food chain Tuesday afternoon, business was slow.
“I think we had a huge impact,” said Chris Mullin of the Center for Independent Living. “This place usually has big lines around lunch.”
“I am definitely boycotting this McDonald’s,” said Michael Diehl, a mental health commissioner for the city. “Frankly, I could give up on the cheeseburger.”
Jan Garrett, the center’s executive director, waved a sign with “People with disabilities make great employees” written boldly on it.
“People with disabilities have clear employment rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” she said. “We want this McDonald’s to know that and all businesses nationally to know that.”
Susan Hanks, one of the disabled workers fired along with Lisa on March 18, stood outside the restaurant talking to family and friends.
Hanks, who has cerebral palsy, was the first disabled worker to be hired by the downtown McDonald’s.
“I have been here since 1982,” Hanks, 65, said. “I don’t want my job back, but I want them to know that they fired me and they shouldn’t have done that.”
Hanks said she was considering joining in the federal charges filed by the Legal Aid Society.
Lisa Gordon, one of the executive directors of Easy Does it, which provides emergency services to the disability community, watched the action from her wheelchair. Gordon expressed her thoughts through her assistant Alejandra Ortiz.
“This is just wrong,” Ortiz said, translating for Gordon. “Lisa worked here for 21 years because she was able to. She knew how to do a good job. It is not fair that they fired them because they have disabilities.”
“We are appalled by this,” said Gina Sasso, who co-directs the organization with Gordon, adding that more than 70 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed. “We are going to continue the struggle.”
Some protesters said they missed councilmember Dona Spring’s presence at the demonstration. Spring, an avid supporter of disability rights, died two weeks ago. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis.
“There was only one Dona, but we as a community must stop the injustice,” Mendoza said. “She’s here in spirit.”