One of biggest employers in the food service industry is McDonalds. Second only to Subway in the total number of U.S. locations, the company and its franchises employ almost 1 million people. For many young adults, McDonalds is their first experience in the workforce. Unfortunately, it is also their experience with workplace sexual harassment.
According to the Harvard Business Review, sexual misconduct is rampant in the service industry. In this post we look at harassment in fast food restaurants and particularly, McDonalds.
We often hear about sexual harassment in politics and Hollywood. As I write this post, Jeffrey Epstein dominates the news on a daily basis. Before that it was Hollywood producer David Weinstein. The rich and famous seem to garner the attention of the media but the problems of harassment are much more pervasive in the service industry.
Sexual harassment runs rampant in the service industry. It’s a combination of young workers - many teenaged females - and poorly trained managers, many of whom are male. Some victims are so new to the workplace that they don’t even know that harassment is illegal. For them, it’s the norm.
Adding to the problem is that the food service is often a “looks” industry where women are expected to use their looks. In many restaurants, tips make up the bulk of a server’s pay making servers less likely to speak up when harassed by a customer. Looks are not a big factor in fast food but the bulk of the workers in many fast food restaurants are still female.
Harvard followed 76 female college students working in the food service industry. In a three- month period the women reported 226 incidents of sexual harassment. Looking at a breakdown of who did the harassing, about half of the incidents involved co-workers, 10% involved managers and the rest came from customers.
The main battle ground over fast food sexual harassment is McDonalds. The company has been rocked by gender based discrimination complaints in recent years. Simply by virtue of having 850,000 employees in the United States, McDonalds will get its share of complaints. But the complaints don’t seem isolated. Many believe the company fosters a culture of gender based discrimination and harassment.
In September 2018, McDonalds workers staged a one day strike to protest workplace discrimination. There have been others.
It’s hard to really understand how pervasive the problem is since so few people file complaints. On average, 9242 workplace harassment complaints are filed annually with both the EEOC and state authorities. Yet most women who work in the service industry report having been harassed. That means just a tiny percentage come forward each year.
Despite the continued traction of the #MeToo movement, there is little evidence that more people are stepping forward and filing complaints. While awareness is helpful, without action there is little hope of fixing the problem.
According to one survey, “nearly all sexual harassment goes unreported, and those that do report tend to face severe retribution and limited redress.” That same survey suggests there are 5 million people harassed at work each year. Quite a difference from the filing data showing less than 10,000 people formally complain.
Worse, those that do complain often lose their jobs or see their hours cut.
Damages in Workplace Sexual Harassment Cases
We hear of people who win multi-million judgments in the media but just how real are those awards? They are real but rare. In April of 2019, an office worker at a Hollywood internet TV company won $11 million after complaining she was repeatedly groped by the company’s CEO.
While large damage awards are welcome news, research show the average award in a workplace harassment case is $24,700. Half the victims receive less than $10,000. Only 1% receive over $100,000.
With statistics like that, it is no wonder that over 99% of sexual harassment victims don’t even bother to report. It doesn’t need to be that way, however.
Many of the victims who are harassed elect to file a complaint without a lawyer. It shouldn’t be a surprise that these folks typically receive the smallest or even no compensation.
Those that do hire lawyers often receive substandard representation. We have found that many of the lawyers that take these cases take them in bulk. They are like some of the lawyers we frequently see on TV and billboards advertising for personal injury clients.
Unfortunately, many law firms have adopted a business model that focuses on quantity and not quality. These lawyers want quick settlements and because many of the workers in the fast food industry survive paycheck to paycheck, the workers are often too quick to settle for anything that puts cash in their pocket.
As trial lawyers, we are frustrated by both our fellow lawyers and sometimes our own clients. We have all had clients that will take any offer simply so they can feed their kids or keep their car from being repossessed. Unfortunately, the defense lawyers that protect fast food restaurants know that many of the victims are desperate and will settle for pennies on the dollar.
Don’t get depressed. Not every fast food case settles for such little money.
In 2012, the EEOC brought charges against Missoula Mac, the owner of a McDonalds franchise in Reedsville, Wisconsin. The government said the company allowed male restaurant workers to harass female employees, some of whom were teenagers. They also said that females who complained often suffered retaliation. Ultimately the company paid $1 million.
In announcing the settlement, an EEOC. Spokesperson said, “The ongoing sexual harassment in Reedsburg, and the company’s refusal to stop it, devolved into a culture of oppression, retaliation and fear. Women who work in restaurants have it tough enough without having to put up with sexual harassment.”
In a bizarre 2007 case, a Kentucky jury awarded a McDonald’s employee $6.1 million after she was forced to undergo an illegal strip search at the restaurant.
Combine the right facts, the right client and the right lawyer and its possible to make a difference and receive meaningful damage awards.
Is McDonalds Ready to Face the #MeToo Movement?
At the beginning of this summer, CEO Steve Easterbrook announced, “McDonald's is committed to ensuring a harassment and bias-free workplace.” At the same time, the company said it was instituting a third party monitored hotline and sending anti-harassment posters to the company’s restaurants. (There was little information on what McDonalds was doing to improve compliance by its thousands of franchised locations.)
We groaned and thought McDonalds’s response to the dozens of harassment complaints and hundreds of protestors was feeble at best. A poster? It was the equivalent of putting a tiny Band-aid on a gaping wound.
Recently, however, McDonalds announced that beginning in October it will provide training system wide to over 850,000 employees. The company promises its training will go beyond simply educating workers as to what is acceptable and what isn’t. According to company president Chris Kempczinski, the training will also tell employees how to report harassment and what co-workers who witness harassment can do.
Our fingers are crossed that McDonalds may finally be willing to take responsibility for the well-being of its workers.
When we last updated this post it was in the fall of 2019 and McDonalds had promised to take better care of its workers. That included sexual harassment training for almost 1 million workers. The training doesn’t seem to be working.
In April 2020 we wrote about a sexual harassment class action filed by Florida McDonalds workers. This month new allegations emerged, this time from Michigan.
A new complaint says that an employee at the Cedar Street McDonalds in Mason, Michigan was sexually harassed. Jenna Ries says she suffered for three years.
According to Reis, her manager “put his penis in her hand when they were standing close to each other.” He also cornered her against a wall in the restaurant’s walk-in freezer, calling her a “bitch” and “slut,” and repeatedly grabbed her breasts, buttocks and crotch. He also routinely threatened that she would be fired if she refused his sexual advances.
Now in June, two more workers from that same restaurant have stepped forward. They say the restaurant ‘is a reflection of corporate culture that is toxic from the top [and] that permits sexual harassment of its workers to go unchecked.”
One of the new former workers filing suit says,
"One assistant manager grabbed me by my clothes and pushed me against the counter when I tried to walk away from him. The swing manager's behavior was out in the open. The general manager saw it and I was unaware of any managers above the general managers or any HR department to whom I could report the harassment. Eventually, it got so bad I had to quit. I just couldn't take it anymore.”
Can I Sue McDonalds for Sexual Harassment?
Can you sue McDonalds for sexual harassment? The answer is yes. In fact, you probably should.
Despite the company’s apparent commitment to get serious on harassment, the best way to get a company’s attention is through the EEOC and courts. When the company has to start shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, not only will the company’s officers start to pay attention, so will Wall Street.
We are aware that most cases don’t get reported and those that do often result in small rewards. Our goal is to break that cycle.
Should you report every incident of harassment? That is a deeply personal question. Certainly anything that makes you uncomfortable should be reported. In many instances, we suggest that you try to take care of the problem internally. But there are no hard and fast rules.
If you are physically or sexually assaulted, call the police immediately and then contact us. There is no need to try and resolve that type problem internally. These cases are extreme and require immediate action. Smaller incidents such as sexual jokes that make you uncomfortable can often be addressed internally.
Where things get messy is when the person doing the harassing is a manager.
If you are the victim of repeated sexual harassment or an incident of physical or sexual assault, let us know. Our practice is limited to serious incidents of harassment and sexual misconduct. Either we or someone from of our network of lawyers will help you stop the problem, protect you from retaliation, and insure you receive proper compensation.
By stepping forward, you are also helping protect other workers. Rarely is there just one victim.
For more information, visit our sexual harassment FAQ page. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online, by email [hidden email] or by phone at 877.858.8018. All inquiries are kept confidential and protected by the attorney – client privilege.