“What’s going on here?” asked a camera-clutching tourist sauntering past a McDonald’s across the street from the Empire State Building on Fifth Avenue, one of many people out enjoying a brisk but sunny Tuesday in midtown Manhattan.

“It’s a protest over fast-food wages,” replied a reporter, one of about two dozen who had converged behind a metal NYPD barrier to balance public and press access to the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. The tourist smiled, squinted up at the McDonald’s sign and walked on.

“We should tell them Katy Perry is inside ordering a Happy Meal and see if they stick around,” joked one of the scribes to another while they waited for the latest rally of a nationwide movement of fast-food workers demanding higher hourly pay, an end to what they claim to be incremental but systematic and wide-scale wage theft, and the right to unionize without retaliation.

McDonald's employee Rosa Rivera, a 47-year-old mother of three who immigrated from El Salvador, says she's worked at McDonald's for 14 years at minimum wage and pays $408 a year to keep her company uniform clean. New York state law requires companies to reimburse restaurant workers for the time and money expended maintaining mandatory uniforms. Photo: Angelo Young

Minutes later, about 100 activists and current and former fast-food workers filed into the restaurant, chanting the type of “hey-hey-ho-ho” typical of demonstrations like this. There was a brief but peaceful confrontation with store management before the protesters moved outside to hold an hour-long demonstration. New York City police officers were present but polite, only asking reporters with camera equipment to remain outside the store at the request of the management.

Despite the seriousness of the allegations – that McDonald’s Corporation (NYSE:MCD) routinely engages in incremental but systematic wage theft either directly or through its franchise operators – the mood was festive. After protesters performed a mock arrest of one of their participants dressed like the Ronald McDonald mascot, current McDonald’s employees explained why they were willing to speak publicly about their grievances with the world’s largest quick-service restaurant chain.

“I’m required to work off the clock, five to 10 minutes, [up to] 20 minutes, every day,” said Franklin La Paz, a 25-year-old employee of an uptown Manhattan McDonald’s franchise who commutes to the $8 an hour job from New Jersey. “That adds up.” La Paz says he's an employee of the multiple-store franchise owner of the Midtown outlet where the demonstration was taking place. The store’s manager declined to comment on that point.

Rosa Rivera, a 47-year-old Salvadoran-American mother of three who works at a McDonald’s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for the state minimum wage of $8 an hour, said she’s washed her McDonald’s uniform multiple times a week for the 14 years she’s worked there, at her own expense, on her own time.

“For what I’ve worked I’ve only made the minimum, and I’ve raised three sons. I never imagined it would be like this here in this country,” she said. “McDonald’s doesn’t pay my uniform allowance to wash it. They owe me $408 a year to wash and maintain my uniform.”

Workers like La Paz and Rivera are being supported by sympathizers as part of a nationwide campaign initiated in November 2012. Groups involved in the action include the Fast Food Forward movement and the Service Employees International Union, which funds much of the organizing effort.

Class-action lawsuits filed last week in three states allege that McDonald’s – the parent company headquartered in Oak Brook, Ill. – is responsible for the alleged wage-theft actions of both its own stores and the majority of stores operated under franchise agreements. The case filed in New York against the global parent company and its U.S. and New York subsidiaries seeks compensation and punitive damages for failing to reimburse workers for the cost Rivera describes.

“Plaintiffs and other McDonald’s crew members must clean the uniform issued to them by McDonald’s, or at least the uniform shirt and pants, several times a week, and often after every shift,” the New York suit contends. “Such uniform cleaning often must and do occur separate from the cleaning of personal or family clothes.”

Cases filed in California and Michigan allege that McDonald’s employees have hours shaved from their time cards.

NYC Public Advocate Tish James NYC Public Advocate Tish James says her office will seek city council approval to create an anonymous hotline for employees to report wage theft allegations and to provide city agencies authority to investigate the claims. Photo: Angelo Young

City Public Advocate Tish James announced that her office would pursue efforts to establish an anonymous tip hotline for employees to report wage theft and to give city agencies the power to investigate the claims.

“This is legislation we are introducing to the city and we look forward to working with the speaker and the city council to move forward with these three pieces of legislation,” Tish told reporters.

McDonald’s issued the following statement on Tuesday by email: "McDonald’s and our independent owner-operators are each committed to undertaking a comprehensive investigation of the allegations and will take any necessary actions as they apply to our respective organizations."

McDonald’s Corporation brought in $9.3 billion from its franchised restaurants last year, a 3 percent increase from the previous year, according to the company’s regulatory filing. It paid out $3.1 billion in stock dividends to shareholders in the same period.

The protest took place the day after New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office announced a $500,000 settlement against Richard Cisneros, the owner of seven Manhattan-area McDonald’s franchises for the following wage violations: forcing cashiers to perform duties off the clock before and after their shifts, not reimbursing workers for the time and cost associated with keeping their company-mandated uniforms clean, as required by New York state law, and not paying the extra hour of pay for working 10 consecutive hours in a shift.

“Our lowest-wage workers deserve the same protections of the law as everyone else,” Schneiderman said in a public statement.

A representative for Cisneros issued a statement to the Huffington Post’s Dave Jamieson saying Cisneros is pleased to have reached the settlement “to correct mistakes my organization made.”

Story was updated to include McDonald's statement about the allegations.