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One of the country's best-known pizza chains is facing a lawsuit over alleged wage theft. New York's attorney general accuses Domino's Pizza of systematically undercounting the hours worked by employees at its franchises. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the case could deliver big changes in the fast food industry.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: When you own a Domino's franchise, there are some rules you just have to follow.
ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: Domino's does not only control how many pepperonis are on each pizza or how fast pizza should be delivered. Domino's exercises control over all key aspects of employment relationships.
ROSE: New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says Domino's parent company encourages its franchisees to use payroll software known as Pulse.
SCHNEIDERMAN: But the Pulse system, which Domino's required all franchises to use, systematically under-calculates workers' wages. This is widespread, systemic illegality. And it victimizes some of the most vulnerable workers in our state.
ROSE: In a lawsuit filed yesterday, Schneiderman alleges that Domino's has known about the problem since at least 2007 and done nothing to fix it. In a statement, Domino's says its franchisees are quote, "solely responsible for the hiring, firing and payment of their own employees," unquote.
Though, the company says it did propose a number of solutions that the attorney general's office apparently found lacking. The lawsuit contends that Domino's is actually a joint employer, and therefore, it is accountable for what its franchises are doing. And this isn't the only high-profile case to test that theory. Janice Fine is a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University.
JANICE FINE: It's like going up the food chain to try to get to the responsible party. If you've got the key player walled away from taking any kind of responsibility, it's very difficult to change conditions.
ROSE: A similar lawsuit against McDonald's went to trial earlier this year. And last year, the National Labor Relations Board broadened its standards for determining who is a joint employer. Peter Cappelli is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. He says taken together, these cases could force big companies to rethink the franchisee model altogether.
PETER CAPPELLI: I think it's kind of cheaper and easier to have people who are close to the local markets run things. So if they become, you know, effectively much more on the hook for what the franchisees do, then maybe you're asking yourself why do we bother with the franchise.
ROSE: The lawsuit against Domino's does not involve a lot of money, just over $500,000 in alleged wage theft. But Cappelli says the legal stakes could be a lot higher. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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