McDonald's Is Sued Over 'Systemic Sexual Harassment' Of Female Workers

Nov 12, 2019
Originally published on November 12, 2019 8:09 pm

A former McDonald's employee says a male co-worker at a Michigan restaurant routinely grabbed her breasts and buttocks and propositioned her for sex — allegations laid out in a new class-action lawsuit that accuses McDonald's of a "culture of sexual harassment."

The lawsuit against McDonald's and its Michigan franchise is the latest allegation of rampant abuse and harassment of female employees at the fast-food chain. Lawyers representing workers say more than 50 claims and charges of harassment of female employees are pending against McDonald's in courts and at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Their accusations drew new focus last week when McDonald's fired its CEO, Steve Easterbrook, over a consensual relationship with an employee. He is not accused of sexual harassment, but the relationship violated company policy. Still, Easterbrook is receiving a multi-million-dollar exit package.

Tuesday's lawsuit by former McDonald's employee Jenna Ries points to Easterbrook's firing to allege that McDonald's as a corporation "creates and permits a toxic work culture from the very top."

In the lawsuit, Ries says a store manager repeatedly harassed her, called her names, pulled her hair, and at one point, when they were working next to each other in the kitchen, even "placed his penis" in her hand. According to the filing, Ries witnessed similar harassment of other women and girls, and reported the co-worker to the general manager — but the behavior continued.

More than 50 women who have worked at the Michigan franchise could join her class-action suit if it's recognized, according to the filing. The lawsuit seeks $5 million in damages for workers at the Mason, Mich., location.

The vast majority of McDonald's restaurants are owned by franchisees. But the lawsuit says the corporation, too, has failed to address the "systemic sexual harassment" and therefore enabled it.

"This is not just about me," Ries told reporters on Tuesday. "This is about countless McDonald's workers around the country who have survived sexual harassment on the job. We deserve to feel safe at work."

McDonald's, in a statement, said it was "demonstrating its continued commitment" to the issue by adding a new anti-harassment training program to all corporate-owned restaurants. It also said it was "encouraged" by the progress getting franchisees to implement the training.

"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," McDonald's said in the statement.

In May, McDonald's workers across the U.S. staged protests against low pay and the company's handling of alleged sexual harassment. That's when workers filed numerous complaints against McDonald's, with the backing of the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and the labor group Fight for $15.

The groups say they expected hundreds of workers in Michigan to join a new strike on Tuesday.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

McDonald's is facing a new lawsuit alleging pervasive sexual harassment of female employees. It's the latest high-profile charge against McDonald's, which is already dealing with some two dozen similar legal claims. And it comes just over a week after McDonald's fired its CEO, paying him a multimillion-dollar exit package after he had a consensual relationship with a subordinate. NPR's Alina Selyukh is here in the studio to tell us more about this. And we should warn listeners that our conversation will contain some graphic details of the alleged harassment.

Hi, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the focus of this new lawsuit.

SELYUKH: So at its heart, the lawsuit accuses McDonald's of, quote, "culture of sexual harassment." The lawsuit has one named plaintiff, who shares her story of working and facing routine abuse and harassment at one franchise location in Michigan. But she filed it as a class action, so more than 50 women who worked at that location might join the case if the court allows it. But her bigger message is that McDonald's as a corporation should take responsibility for what the lawsuit calls systemic and institutional problems with how male workers treat their female colleagues. McDonald's has said it is committed to a safe and respectful workplace.

SHAPIRO: What are the details of this particular case in Michigan?

SELYUKH: So the former McDonald's employee - her name is Jenna Ries - says her store had a male manager who routinely harassed her and other female employees. The allegations run for pages, and they are disturbing. The lawsuit says he grabbed her breasts and buttocks and called her names, accosted her, pulled her hair, made sexually charged comments. Here's Ries talking to reporters today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNA RIES: I constantly told him to stop. I told him no. I told him to leave me alone. If I spoke up, he would threaten to fire me. I constantly lived in fear of losing my job for rejecting his sexual advances, abuses and threats. It was so hard for me to go to work, but I had to physically force myself to go. I needed the money, and I felt like I had no choice.

SELYUKH: Ries says she reported this co-worker to the general manager, but the behavior continued. Her case has the backing of the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union. And she alleges that McDonald's failed to address and, therefore, enabled this.

SHAPIRO: Now, you said that McDonald's stressed its commitment to a safe and respectful workplace. What else are they saying about this suit?

SELYUKH: So that was in their statement that they issued today, that this is a deeply important conversation and they're committed to. They pointed to examples of things they've changed in the recent past - a new hotline, a new anti-harassment training they've added. For several years now, workers have been staging walkouts at McDonald's over low pay and harassment. They are accusing McDonald's of not doing enough to crack down on rampant sexual harassment. Lawyers say 50 claims are pending against McDonald's in courts and with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But the big, tricky thing about McDonald's is that the vast majority of its locations are owned by franchisees. They're not corporate - more than 90% of them. McDonald's says it doesn't really run these stores. So for example, that anti-harassment training, McDonald's says it's been added to all corporate-owned restaurants. But when it comes to franchisees, McDonald says it is, quote, "encouraged by the progress in negotiating with the owners."

SHAPIRO: Alina, put this into context for us. And many different companies right now are facing similar accusations of a culture of abuse, where they're just not doing enough to root out sexual harassment.

SELYUKH: Yes, and it's particularly problematic when you talk about workers who make minimum wage. This has played out in the hotel industry, lots of fast food stores. There've been different lawsuits against Hilton, Marriott, Wendy's, Burger King. And these are workers who may not have time and money to grapple with the weight of these issues. And more to the point, they might be stitching together income from multiple jobs to support their families. They are afraid of retaliation - meaning losing hours or even jobs - and so they are afraid to speak out.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Alina Selyukh with details on the latest lawsuit against McDonald's.

Thanks, Alina.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.