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McDonald's Workers Say Anti-Harassment Efforts Fall Short

Many low-wage fast food workers feel they can lose shifts or even be fired if they report harassment to a manager.

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AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File

McDonald's got tough on its former CEO, who was fired last week for having a consensual relationship with an employee. Now, some workers say, the company needs to get tougher on sexual harassment in its restaurants. 

On Tuesday, former McDonald's employee Jenna Ries filed a class-action lawsuit against the company and one of its Michigan franchisees. She's one of at least 50 workers who have filed sexual harassment charges against the company with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or in state courts over the past three years.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the labor group Fight for $15 are among those backing the plaintiffs. The Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, which was founded in response to the #MeToo movement, is also providing legal support. Ries is seeking at least $5 million in damages.

Ries, 32, said the problems in the Mason, Michigan, restaurant began soon after she started working there in the fall of 2017 and continued for more than a year. She alleges that the general manager ignored her co-worker's repeated harassment of her and her colleagues, including groping, physical assault and verbal epithets.

Ries said she often cried on the way to work and felt physically ill, but she needed the job to pay her bills. Eventually she was transferred to another location, but the co-worker who allegedly harassed her remained at the original location. "It's definitely difficult for me to come forward, but I want to encourage other people," Ries told The Associated Press. "I want McDonald's to recognize that they have a problem and make sure this doesn't happen to others." 

Ries has also filed charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is a precursor to filing civil rights charges in federal court. The case could take years to resolve. Some of the 50 cases are still being investigated or are in mediation, advocates say. Some have moved from the EEOC to state courts after the EEOC determined there were grounds for a discrimination claim. 

Ries said she finds it ironic that McDonald's fired CEO Steve Easterbrook last week for violating a policy forbidding relationships between supervisors and their subordinates. "They barely have a policy (against sexual harassment)," Ries said. 

McDonald's Corp. has taken steps to tackle the problem. Last fall, it introduced harassment training for its U.S. franchisees and general managers. In January, the Chicago-based company released an enhanced policy against discrimination, harassment and retaliation, and in June it began offering a free hotline for employees.

Last month, McDonald's introduced a new training program for its 850,000 U.S. employees and said franchisees supported it. "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," McDonald's said in a statement. 

But franchisees — who own 95 percent of McDonald's U.S. restaurants — aren't required to offer the training. Gillian Thomas, an attorney with the ACLU who is representing Ries, said the company should make training mandatory and monitor compliance.  "It's accountability. It's reform we're looking for," Thomas said. 

Sharyn Tejani, the director of the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, said McDonald's should also sit down with workers who have been harassed and ask them what training should look like. Tejani said low-wage fast food workers can lose shifts or even be fired if they report harassment to a manager. By contrast, Easterbrook is still eligible for millions of dollars in salary, incentive payments and stock options, she said. 

"When women come forward they get treated like this and the CEO gets fired and treated like that?" Tejani asked. "That's such a shocking difference."

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