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McDonald’s faces more sexual harassment charges

Workers, backed by the ACLU and union groups, filed more complaints and said steps by the company to prevent harassment are not enough.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Employees filed another 25 sexual harassment charges against McDonald’s as labor advocates and other activists continue to put pressure on the burger giant over workplace safety issues amid an effort to push the company and its franchisees to raise pay and accept a union.

The charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) came a day after the Chicago-based chain announced changes to its sexual harassment policy and bolstered training programs at both company- and franchise-owned locations.

The advocacy groups said those efforts were not enough and suggested that such policies be a part of the company’s franchising requirements.

“If a franchise can lose the right to call itself McDonald’s because they don’t meet cleanliness standards or make a Big Mac properly, it should face similar consequences for failing to make sure employees can earn paychecks with dignity,” said Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.

The 25 complaints in 20 states brings to 50 the number of sexual harassment complaints that the groups have filed against McDonald’s since 2016. A pair of those complaints have been allowed to proceed as lawsuits against the company or its franchisees.

The complaints come as the union-backed Fight for $15 has pushed McDonald’s to raise its wages and recognize union groups among its workers.

That effort has featured protests as well as complaints of various forms, including worker safety and franchisee complaints. The group has also pushed to have McDonald’s recognized as a joint employer of its franchisees’ employees.

McDonald’s has been working to improve its image and fend off this pressure, raising wages at company stores, for instance. It has also stopped pushing back against increases in the minimum wage.

More recently, the company changed its sexual harassment policies. In a letter to "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi, who has joined the effort to push for higher wages and unionization at McDonald’s, CEO Steve Easterbrook detailed the company’s efforts to improve its policy and standards.

The company last year began working with RAINN to improve its sexual harassment policies and says that nearly 90% of the company’s operators and general managers have taken new training programs. Easterbrook also said the company has a new hotline for complaints and new training programs for employees.

“McDonald’s is sending a clear message that we are committed to creating and sustaining a culture of trust where employees feel safe, valued and respected,” Easterbrook said in the letter.

Union-backed groups that have filed the EEOC charges, however, say the new policies are not enough. “Written harassment policies without accountability measures does not prevent harassment,” said Eve Cervantez, an attorney with Altshuler Berzon. She is working on the cases with support from the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which is helping finance the lawsuits. The fund is administered by the National Women’s Law Center Fund.

Time’s Up, in an open letter to Easterbrook and Chris Kempczinski, McDonald’s U.S. president, said that the company’s efforts over the past year have not done enough to prevent harassment inside its 14,000 U.S. locations.

The complaints against McDonald’s, however, have highlighted a broader industry problem. Just over 14% of all sexual harassment complaints filed with the EEOC occurred at a hotel or restaurant, and a 2016 Hart Research study found that more than 40% of female fast-food workers have been the subject of sexual harassment.

In a telephone conference with reporters, the group presented several women who said they experienced harassment at McDonald’s locations. That included several who said they’ve had their hours cut, were removed from management training programs or demoted after reporting harassment.

“For three years, we’ve been speaking out, filing charges and even going on strike to get McDonald’s to confront its sexual harassment problem,” said Tanya Harrell, a McDonald’s worker from Gretna, La., in a statement. She said that a co-worker attempted to rape her in a bathroom stall. “But these new charges show that nothing has changed.”

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