Lovin’ > Hatin’? McDonald’s Hit with 25 Sexual Harassment Lawsuits



McDonald’s is currently facing 25 lawsuits and federal complaints that were filed May 21 in 20 American cities accusing the world’s largest restaurant chain and its franchises of sexual harassment, gender-based discrimination, and subsequent retaliation.

The cases were initiated by the labor group Fight for $15, have the legal support of the ACLU and are being funded by the TIME’s UP Legal Defense Fund, an organization formed in response to the sexual assault allegations made against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Some of the claims being made in the lawsuits include the following:

  • A single mom in Missouri was forced to quit her job at McDonald’s after she accused her area manager of repeated sexual harassment.
  • A Florida woman who complained of continual sexual assault by a male coworker subsequently had her work hours cut from 25 hours a week to just seven.
  • A female McDonald’s floor manager in Michigan was terminated after she experienced sexual assault on the job, both physical and verbal. Her general manager told her to “deal with it” and she was required to work with her assailant after the incident, despite her objections.

The lawsuits against the fast-food giant are attempting to have the corporation designated a “joint employer” of workers at McDonald’s franchises, making the company liable when its franchises violate labor laws. But it likely won’t be easy for the plaintiffs to hold McDonald’s responsible for the actions of its franchises. In two earlier cases, California federal judges ruled that McDonald’s does not retain enough control over franchise workers to be considered a joint employer.

According to research conducted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), at least one-fourth of women in the U.S. experience some form of workplace harassment during their lifetime, and some studies suggest that the number is actually closer to 80%. The EEOC estimates that 75% of those who experience sexual harassment fail to report the behavior because they believe that nobody will believe them, nothing will be done, they will be blamed for the conduct, or they will be the targets of employer retaliation if they complain.

Sexual abuse in the fast-food industry and specifically among those working low wage jobs is especially widespread. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay for food and beverage serving and related work was $21,750 annually in 2018, approximately $10.45 per hour. The restaurant industry employs an estimated half of all American women at some point in their lives, and most have faced low wages, uncertain schedules, and little or no paid benefits. As a result, female workers are at a high risk for mistreatment from colleagues as well as customers.

According to Sharyn Tejani, director of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, as many as 25% of all U.S. workers – particularly women of color who are employed in low-wage positions – endure sexual harassment at their work on a regular basis. “Few women working low-wage jobs have the financial security to challenge their harassment. By funding the legal representation of several workers at McDonald’s, we see potential for these charges to be a catalyst for significant change,” she said in a recent ABC News report.

Los Angeles employment lawyer Steven Azizi says he deals with sexual harassment lawsuits on a daily basis. “Many of the women I represent often, and not coincidentally, are in lower-level jobs. The reason for this correlation is simple—they are often the most vulnerable individuals in the workplace. Predators often believe that it is easier to escape liability by preying on lower-level workers who they believe will not report the lascivious behavior,” he said. “This is just of one of many reasons that low-wage working women are at high risk for sexual harassment.”

Azizi believes that the McDonald’s litigation is part of a growing trend of sexual harassment litigation against companies that employ a large number of low-wage workers, particularly women. “Even more surprisingly, it is starting to become more prevalent among smaller sized businesses with 20 or more employees,” he said. “However, it is easier for misconduct to slip through the cracks in larger companies where sexual harassment prevention training is far too often neglected.”

And it isn’t just women who earn low wages who are being targeted. “Unfortunately, complaints of sexual harassment by women in general, not just lesser paid counterparts, are on the rise,” said Azizi. “This may not be due to more instances of sexual harassment per se, but because the #MeToo movement has given women the courage to speak up. We are now just seeing #MeToo evidence being introduced into litigation and the introduction will eventually help low wage working woman prove their cases.”

Attorney Domenique Camacho Moran focuses on labor/employment law and litigation at the New York law firm Farrell Fritz, frequently representing employers in harassment and discrimination cases. She agrees that the #MeToo movement has raised awareness about inappropriate workplace conduct. “For employers, #MeToo was a reminder that despite well-drafted policies and a commitment to harassment-free workplaces, additional steps must be taken to achieve the goal.”

Camacho Moran said the legal issue in the McDonald’s cases will likely hinge on whether workplace suspensions and warnings were adequate remedial steps. “The allegations demonstrate the importance of workplace policies that prohibit sexual harassment, prompt investigation and corrective action.  The facts also highlight the importance of follow-up with those involved to ensure compliance with policies moving forward.”

But how can this disturbing trend be reversed? “Employers must continue to publish and promote their policies prohibiting inappropriate workplace conduct – even when the conduct does not rise to unlawful sexual harassment,” Camacho Moran said. “By demanding that employees comply with a higher standard, training the workforce about appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and responding quickly to address infractions, employers can improve workplaces.”

But for those currently pursuing lawsuits against McDonald’s, it could be too little too late. One of the plaintiffs, Maribel Hoyos, recently quit her job at a McDonald’s restaurant in Tucson, Arizona after she and her teenage daughter, who also worked at the restaurant, were reprimanded for complaining about a manager who continually groped them and made other unwanted advances. “Sexual harassment is not something you should have to endure no matter how desperately you need a job,” she said.


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