ACLU, Michigan workers sue McDonald’s over sexual harassment

Days after Steve Easterbrook was fired as McDonald’s CEO for engaging in what the company called a consensual relationship with an employee, workers filed a class-action lawsuit against the company over sexual harassment.

The class-action suit, filed Tuesday by a former employee with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, alleges that McDonald’s “creates and permits a toxic work culture from the very top.” The plaintiffs are seeking at least $5 million in damages, as well as better protections from the company.

The suit focuses on one restaurant in Mason, Michigan, where plaintiff Jenna Ries, then in a management position, was allegedly verbally harassed, groped and physically assaulted by another manager. The location’s general manager was aware of the situation and did nothing to stop it, the suit alleges. Ries brought the suit on behalf of herself and other unnamed women who worked at that location within the past three years and allegedly suffered from similar harassment.

Sexual harassment at the Mason location is “emblematic” of a broader problem at McDonald’s, the suit states.

A former employee of a McDonald’s in Detroit also filed a sexual harassment charge with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Tuesday, saying that she was transferred and her hours reduced after she reported sexual harassment by a manager. Ries has also filed a charge with the EEOC in relation to the class action suit.

In response to the lawsuit, McDonald’s said in a statement Tuesday that it “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 added that it is “encouraged by the partnership and commitment,” from franchise groups — which aren’t required to follow such corporate policies — to train staff according to corporate regulations. The National Owners Association, a McDonald’s franchise group formed last year, did not respond to a request for comment on the suit.

The accusations come at a sensitive time for the company, which recently announced the departure of Easterbrook. McDonald’s board terminated Easterbrook over a relationship with an employee, the company shared earlier this month. Easterbook “demonstrated poor judgment” by engaging in the relationship, which violated company policy, McDonald’s said at the time. Easterbrook was not accused of sexual harassment.

In an email sent to McDonald’s employees, Easterbrook expressed regret over the relationship. “I engaged in a recent consensual relationship with an employee, which violated McDonald’s policy,” Easterbrook wrote. “This was a mistake.”

The former executive, who earned $15.9 million in 2018, received a generous severance package.

But the company had already been under fire over accusations of sexual harassment.

The Fight for $15, which advocates for workers’ rights, announced in May that 25 new sexual harassment EEOC charges and lawsuits had been filed against McDonald’s. The group says that over the course of three years, workers have filed over 50 complaints and suits against the company.

As CEO, Easterbrook responded to those suits by noting that McDonald’s started working with the anti-sexual violence organization RAINN last year to help clarify its sexual harassment policies and reporting methods. It also conducted manager and operator training last fall, opened a hotline and more.

“We are committed to creating and sustaining a culture of trust where employees feel safe, valued and respected,” Easterbrook wrote in a letter at the time.

Last month, McDonald’s USA started training staff on how to mitigate violence, how to report harassment and reduce unconscious bias, among other things.

“There is a deeply important conversation around safe and respectful workplaces in communities throughout the US and around the world,” said new CEO Chris Kempczinski, then president of McDonald’s USA, when the company announced the new training in August. “We have a responsibility to take action on this issue and are committed to promoting positive change.” In January, the company also enhanced its policy on discrimination, harassment and retaliation prevention.

Company policies, however, only apply to its corporate-owned stores. Franchise operators, which run about 93% of McDonald’s restaurants, are encouraged to follow the same rules and procedures but are not required to do so.

Ries was employed at a McDonald’s franchise and has named the operator, in addition to the corporation itself, as a defendant in her class action suit. That operator could not be reached for comment.

The plaintiffs argue that McDonald’s needs to take more responsibility for what happens at franchise locations, and should be doing more. Michigan workers are striking on Tuesday over the issue, according to the Fight for $15.

In addition to financial compensation, the suit is demanding that McDonald’s work with employees to develop stronger protections, improve training and implement better reporting mechanisms, among other changes.

The workers also want to meet with Kempczinski, the new CEO, to discuss how to improve conditions for workers at restaurants. McDonald’s did not share whether Kempczinski has agreed.