- A class action lawsuit filed this week alleges McDonald's managers at one of the chain's restaurants in Lansing, Michigan, "subjected workers to pervasive sexual harassment and a hostile work environment" that included "groping and physical assaults" as well as verbal harassment.
The suit specifically alleges that McDonald’s failed to "recognize, penalize and prevent" sexual harassment and that the company "pays lips service to training its restaurant staff" without ensuring that training takes place or is effective.
In a statement emailed to HR Dive, McDonald's defended its training initiatives: "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," the company said. It added that it is working with franchisees to implement those programs at U.S. locations.
The suit is one of many employment law actions to hit McDonald's in recent years. In May, parties including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), advocacy group Fight for $15 and the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund — each of which also back the lead plaintiff in the most recent case — filed several suits against the fast food chain alleging gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment, according to NPR.
Jenna Ries, a former McDonald's employee and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit filed this week, said on a conference call with reporters Nov. 12 that a swing manager at the Lansing store physically and verbally harassed her, at times in front of the store's general manager. On one occasion, according to the suit, the swing manager followed Ries into a walk-in freezer and shoved her up against a wall before she escaped and ran out.
Ries said she attempted to obtain a transfer to another McDonald's store in March 2018, but the request was not granted. She attempted to raise the issue with the general manager, "but nothing ever happened," Ries told reporters. Per the suit, Ries said she was unaware of an HR department "outside the regular chain of command" to which she could report the harassment. The suit alleges that in 2019, Ries complained to a district manager about the harassment and was later transferred to another store, but the swing manager who harassed her remained employed at the Lansing location. Ries is suing on behalf of herself and others similarly situated.
Franchisee issues are at the core of Ries' case. The Lansing location is owned by a franchisee, and Ries and her legal representatives argue that McDonald's franchisees aren't held to the same standards as their corporate-owned counterparts. McDonald's harassment training and policies "are the definition of window dressing" and are mandatory only for corporate-owned locations, Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney with the ACLU, said during Tuesday's call. At franchisee locations, she added, "these highly touted reforms are ‘encouraged.'"
McDonald's has faced court challenges over its position that workers at its franchisee-owned locations are not actually McDonald's employees, and that the company itself is not a joint employer of such employees. At the federal level, this distinction has largely survived challenges. In October, McDonald's scored a victory when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held the chain was not a joint employer in part because it didn't have control over franchise workers' wages, hours and working conditions.
Thomas called McDonald's stance on its non-joint employer status "the height of hypocrisy" during the Tuesday call. The suit also alluded to McDonald's decision last week to fire former CEO Steve Easterbrook over a relationship Easterbrook had with an employee as evidence that the company "creates and permits a toxic work culture at the very top."
More pertinent to the case itself may be whether harassment prevention training at the Lansing location was taken seriously by leadership and staff. Thomas said Tuesday she's skeptical about this point. "We are dubious about training quality, and how much has been widely disseminated."
Employment experts previously told HR Dive about the need for harassment prevention modules that incorporate bystander training and that avoid characterization of employees as potential harassers. Others have pointed to the need for managers to directly respond to inappropriate conduct in the moment to navigate situations in which harassment may not be immediately obvious.