Cooks and cashiers at McDonald’s stores in eight states filed 10 complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission this week, alleging they have faced sexual harassment, assault and retaliation on the job.
The company said it did not tolerate misconduct. “At McDonald’s Corporation, we are and have been committed to a culture that fosters the respectful treatment of everyone,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Terri Hickey said in a statement. “There is no place for harassment and discrimination of any kind in our workplace.”
The #MeToo movement has turned a spotlight on workplace misconduct, starting with women in Hollywood. But workers in food services and retail file more than three times as many harassment complaints as those in higher-paying fields, according to a recent analysis of government data from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.
A 2016 survey by Hart Research Associates found 40 percent of women in the fast-food industry say they’ve encountered unwanted sexual behavior at work, including suggestive comments and groping.
Complaints from the McDonald’s workers were filed with financial support from the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, a $21 million charity launched in January to support low-income workers who want to report sexual harassment. About 20,000 people have donated to the effort in the past five months.
The National Women’s Law Center, the advocacy group running the fund, said it has received more than 2,700 requests for the assistance.
“They represent every type of job and industry you can think of,” said Sharyn Tejani, director of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. “Frequently they write in all caps: ‘SOMEONE PLEASE HELP ME.’ ”
Employment lawyers say workers at independently owned stores could be particularly vulnerable to abuse. The vast majority of McDonald's roughly 14,000 outlets in the United States are operated by franchisees.
McDonald’s could say, “This really isn’t my doing — talk to the franchisee,” said Emily Martin, general counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “They should be showing leadership in this moment, though, and work to ensure that franchisees are taking the steps to prioritize the safety of people working under the brand.”
Hickey said in a statement the company trusts its franchisees to appropriately handle complaints.
“McDonald’s Corporation takes allegations of sexual harassment very seriously and are confident our independent franchisees who own and operate about 90 percent of our 14,000 U.S. restaurants will do the same," Hickey said.
The Labor Department scrapped Obama-era guidelines last year that suggested chains such as McDonald’s be held accountable for mistreatment that occurs at any of its stores, regardless of the owner. (The document wasn’t legally binding, but it was designed to inform judges who rule on such cases.)
Fight for $15, a group that supports low-income workers, coordinated the EEOC complaints on behalf of the McDonald's workers and hosted a press call Tuesday with three of the workers.
The 10 workers who filed the complaints were all employees of individual franchise owners.
Breauna Morrow, a 15-year-old crew member in St. Louis, told reporters that one of her co-workers began to harass her “almost immediately.”
“He would make comments about my body, what he would do to me,” the teenager said. One question he asked her, according to her EEOC complaint: “Have you ever had white chocolate inside you?”
When she asked her manager how to handle it, Morrow said they replied: “You will never win that battle.”
Tanya Harrel, who works at a store in New Orleans, said she felt helpless after telling her boss that a co-worker had grabbed her butt.
“My supervisor didn’t take it seriously,” she said.
So, after another employee pushed her into a bathroom and tried to have sex with her, she didn’t think the company would punish him.
“I didn’t even report the second incident,” Harrel said.
Kimberley Lawson, who works in Kansas City, said her manager sent her home early after she rebuffed his sexual advances.
“I reported his behavior to the GM,” she said, “but nothing was done.”