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McDonald’s is hit with harassment suit in wake of Easterbrook firing

Labor advocates have amplified their accusations that the chain tolerates sexual mistreatment.
Photograph: Shutterstock

After firing CEO Steve Easterbrook for having a consensual dalliance with a subordinate, McDonald’s is drawing more fire from labor advocates for allegedly tolerating rampant sexual harassment within the chain, particularly at franchised stores.

The accusers are also using the complaints to argue that McDonald’s is in fact a joint employer, contrary to a recent court decision that holds franchisees solely responsible for their normal interactions with staff.

A class-action lawsuit was filed today on the behalf of two alleged victims by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); the legal defense fund of Time’s Up, a group devoted to combating the sexual harassment of low-income women; and several law firms. 

A complaint was also filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with combating workplace discrimination and abuse. 

In a press conference called to announce the filings, the two lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit provided graphic accounts of being harassed at the McDonald’s restaurants where they worked. Jenna Ries, a 32-year-old former employee of a store near Lansing, Mich., said she was subject to 18 months of groping and verbal abuse from a supervisor. “He grabbed me by the crotch, breast and butt,” Ries said. “He pulled my hair and purposely shoved me into other workers.

“I constantly told him to stop,” Ries continued. “I constantly lived in fear of losing my job for resisting his advances. I needed the money and felt like I had no choice.”

Jamelia Fairley, a crew member at a McDonald’s outside Tampa, Fla., said she was verbally abused by a subordinate and asked how much she’d charge to permit the sexual abuse of her 1-year-old daughter. When she reported the improprieties to a manager, she was discouraged from making a formal complaint, Fairley said during the press conference in Michigan. 

Legal representatives of the women contrasted the plaintiffs’ experiences with the treatment Easterbrook received after acknowledging he’d violated corporate policies on intra-staff relationships. At no time was Easterbrook accused of sexually harassing the woman with whom he’d had the affair. Her identify has yet to be revealed. 

The attorneys participating in the press conference asserted that Easterbrook walked away with an exit package that could be worth up to $85 million. 

The actual value is difficult to calculate because much of that alleged sum is in the form of stock that Easterbrook holds.

Fairley, seemingly reading a script, said that 50 complaints of sexual harassment have been filed against McDonald’s during the past three years. Few, however, were class actions. 

Allegations of sexual harassment have been used by organized labor to rally opposition to McDonald’s as an employer. Another tactic has been the legal assertion in and out of court that the franchisor is actually a joint employer of its franchisees’ staffs and should be held accountable for the employment policies and practices at the licensees’ stores. Labor experts say unions would have an easier time organizing the quick-service giant if public outrage over labor-law violations was directed at the corporation rather than the small businesses that make up its franchisee network. 

McDonald’s and the franchise community, including franchisees, have vehemently asserted that franchisor and franchisee are not joint employers, a contention that was recently ratified by a federal appeals court. 

“We say that is ridiculous, that it is a joint employer,” said Gillian Thomas of the ACLU. “When someone is hired by a franchised restaurant, they think they’re going to work for McDonald’s.”

She and others participating in today’s event said McDonald’s has done little to curb harassment within its franchise ranks. They said that only six of the 50 charges that have been leveled at the chain were the result of alleged misbehavior at corporate stores.

The group acknowledged that it had not yet met with Easterbrook’s successor, Chris Kempczinski, about the situation. 

It also criticized the actions McDonald’s has recently taken to combat sexual harassment. A new training program aimed at countering workplace abuse was rolled out last month.

“There is a deeply important conversation around safe and respectful workplaces in communities throughout the U.S. and around the world, and McDonald’s is demonstrating its continued commitment to this issue through the implementation of safe and respectful workplace training in 100% of our corporate-owned restaurants,” McDonald’s said in a statement provided to Restaurant Business. “We are encouraged by the partnership and commitment from the National Franchisee Leadership Association and the Women Operators Network that represent franchisees across the U.S. to work with franchisees to implement this important Safe and Respectful workplace training program.” 

“Those measures sound promising, but they’re nowhere near enough,” said ACLU’s Thomas. “An hour or two of training or a policy on a piece of paper are useless without many, many more procedural safeguards.” 

Plus, she continued, “McDonald’s has announced zero measures” specifically to avert harassment at franchised stores.

The lawsuit filed today seeks $5 million in compensatory damages for alleged victims of sexual harassment within the quick-service chain’s body of employees.

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