Workplace Abuse Claims Against McDonald’s Spotlight Sexual Harassment in the Fast Food Industry

May 13, 2021

  The #MeToo movement isn’t only about revealing abusive conduct by Hollywood moguls and television celebrities. Empowered in part by the strength of this movement, women and men employed in low-wage hourly jobs at McDonald’s and other fast-food franchises are stepping forward to expose sexual harassment and hostile work environments.

Sexual Harassment: An Endemic, Systemic Problem

According to one 2017 report, 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men in the restaurant industry indicated they were subjected to sexual harassment, more than any other industry. Survey respondents regularly report a culture of sexual jokes, innuendo, propositions, catcalls, and other verbal abuse, as well as groping, indecent exposure, and unwanted physical touching. These behaviors are so prevalent that many workers, and managers, view them as simply “part of the job.” Several different factors contribute to the harassment in the food and hospitality sector, including:

  • The prevalence of young, financially insecure female employees in lower-level positions and only slightly older men in positions of power.
  • “The customer is always right” culture that discourages management from standing up for employees subjected to harassment by customers.
  • Young, poorly trained male managers who believe they should be able to wield power of any sort over female subordinates
  • A compensation system that relies predominantly on voluntary tipping that encourages service staff and management’s acceptance (and even encouragement) of customer sexual harassment.

Further, the high turnover rate and typically inconsistent scheduling can easily cover up an employer’s unlawful retaliation against a worker who complains about harassment in the workplace. After reporting harassment or filing a claim with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), a worker may find their hours slashed or they might be transferred to a less favorable shift or location. Even if they prove harassment or retaliation, these workers often receive such low compensation that the effort to pursue an official complaint or lawsuit isn’t worth the recovery. Complaining about sexual harassment is usually more trouble than it’s worth to many employees, who may have limited employment options and financial resources.

Preventing Harassment: Holding Employers Accountable

Employers have a legal obligation to protect their employees from hazards in the workplace, including all forms of workplace sexual harassment. Most sexual harassment laws prohibit behavior that a reasonable person would find offensive, intimidating, or abusive since this behavior violates every employee’s right to a safe workplace. The law holds employers responsible for the acts of its agents, so the company itself may be directly liable for improper conduct that managers and supervisors exhibit towards their subordinates. Also, in some situations, an employer might be held liable for harassing conduct between non-supervisory co-workers or between a customer and an employee. Corporations that operate using the franchise model, where individual stores or local chains directly control the restaurant operations, often deny responsibility for the actions of franchise owners and their supervisors. However, these corporations exert significant control over other operations, such as food preparation and presentation, menu design, marketing, uniform appearance, restaurant design, and more. When viewed in this light, their decision not to implement and enforce company-wide workplace fairness and anti-harassment policies seems less reasonable and more negligent. #MeToo has allowed many small voices to join with louder protests from victims of workplace harassment. The movement provides social support and strength to those who step forward and tell their stories and a meaningful way for these individuals to join together to create change. Boycotts and swells of negative publicity can seriously affect a company’s reputation and cause them to take increased responsibility to prevent workplace harassment. Class-action lawsuits are made up of many individuals who suffer similar unlawful treatment, like the 2019 case filed against McDonald’s by Michigan workers. Class actions can be much more costly for employers to defend and settle than claims brought by individual plaintiffs. However, individual plaintiffs can still seek justice on their own by filing suits that allege harassment and retaliation claims against a McDonald’s franchise.

A Whole New Way to Love McDonald’s

Even though McDonald’s has been able to largely ignore the hundreds of lawsuits and complaints filed each year by its workers, social media trends like #MeToo and exposés from traditional media outlets, like this feature piece on CBS Sunday Morning about McDonald’s abusive workplace environments, have increased the pressure: Significant awards and settlements against restaurants in sexual harassment cases, like the EEOC’s $1.25 million settlement with Del Taco and the recent $200,000 Georgina’s/Little G’s settlement, can also encourage victims to step forward and file formal complaints. Many organizations are working to strengthen existing laws and pass new legislation protecting low-wage workers from workplace sexual harassment. Companies must be held accountable for developing and enforcing comprehensive, effective anti-harassment policies that apply to their direct employees and franchisees. Such policies should include specific measures to prevent harassment, with concrete action plans and directives for the employees implementing, enforcing, and investigating those policies. They should establish effective systems for reporting and responding to allegations of harassment without retaliation. Finally, they should provide training to management and workers at all levels that demonstrate the company’s commitment to preventing, reporting, investigating, and fairly responding to workplace sexual harassment. As the tides of public opinion rise with the waves of low-wage worker complaints, these aspirations may one day become realities.

(*Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.)