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#MeToo's legal forces take on McDonald's

The Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, formed last year to extend the #MeToo movement beyond Hollywood, has taken aim at sexual harassment on the fast-food chain's assembly lines

By Melena Ryzik
Published: May 22, 2019

#MeToo's legal forces take on McDonald'sFILE-- Fast-food workers hold signs during a demonstration against sexual harassment, at a McDonald's in St. Louis, Sept. 18, 2018. In newly filed complaints, McDonald’s employees described repeated sexual harassment and then punishment for speaking out.
Image: Nick Schnelle/The New York Times

In 2016, when she was 16, Brittany Hoyos started her first job, at a busy McDonald’s in Tucson, Arizona. Not long after, she said, a manager began harassing her, touching her hair, texting her about her appearance and once making a move to kiss her after offering her a ride home.

Hoyos rebuffed him and her parents alerted her supervisors. She was then subjected to retaliation at work, she said, including a demotion from her position as crew trainer. She said the retaliation extended to her mother, who also worked in the restaurant. Eventually both were left unemployed. Hoyos blamed herself.

With 1.9 million workers in more than 100 countries, McDonald’s is one of the world’s largest companies and most recognizable brands. Now the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, formed last year to extend the muscle of the #MeToo movement beyond Hollywood, has taken aim at sexual harassment on the fast-food chain’s assembly lines.

On Tuesday the fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and the labor group Fight for $15 announced the filing of 23 new complaints against McDonald’s — 20 sent to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, three filed as civil rights lawsuits and two suits stemming from previous allegations.

In the filings, workers including Hoyos and her mother accuse McDonald’s of gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment in the workplace and retaliation for speaking up. It is the third and largest round of EEOC complaints that workers have filed against McDonald’s in the past three years.

The cases represent just a sampling of complaints labor advocates said they have received about the chain, but the company’s dominant role in the economy makes the campaign a major test of the legal and labor power of the #MeToo movement. The $25 million legal defense fund, housed at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, has received almost 5,000 requests for assistance since it was created in the fallout of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. A majority of those appeals came from low-wage workers and the fund has given the most money to the McDonald’s cases, said Sharyn Tejani, director of the fund.

“What we’re seeing over and over again in these claims — for these workers, they’re put in a position where you have to put up with the harassment, or you lose the paycheck that’s keeping you in a house or keeping groceries on your table,” Tejani said.

McDonald’s is a strategic target. The restaurant industry has one of the highest rates of workplace sexual harassment. In one survey, 40% of female fast-food workers said they had experienced it and more than one in five said they had faced consequences — including shortened hours and being denied raises — for reporting it. Workplace sexual harassment is also difficult to litigate, partly because the statute of limitations is often very short, though employees are entitled to protections from hostile environments and from being targeted for speaking out.

Chains like McDonald’s, which has more than 14,000 locations in North America, the majority of them independently owned, have long argued that they are not liable for the behavior of employees at franchisees’ stores. (A case that may decide whether McDonald’s is a joint employer of its franchisee staff is currently before the National Labor Relations Board.)

“This is a company that has especially used the franchise model as a shield,” said Gillian Thomas, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “It’s determining literally the pattern that the sauce makes on the hamburger — it has a special machine that does that. And then throws up its hands and says, we can’t be responsible for how people operating those machines behave.”

Steve Easterbrook, the McDonald’s CEO, responding Monday to a letter from Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said the company had improved and clarified its policies on harassment, printed them on posters sent to all of its restaurants and put most franchise owners through new training. In the coming months, he said, the company will be rolling out training for front-line employees and a complaint hotline.

The changes began late last year, a McDonald’s spokeswoman added in an email Monday.

“By strengthening our overall policy, creating interactive training, a third-party-managed anonymous hotline and importantly, listening to employees across the system, McDonald’s is sending a clear message that we are committed to creating and sustaining a culture of trust where employees feel safe, valued and respected,” she said.

Employees maintain that, despite McDonald’s assurances, not much has changed. At least one corporate store had repeat federal claims made against it and this year two had multiple complaints.

Last September, hundreds of McDonald’s workers walked off the job during the lunch rush, protesting what they said was pervasive sexual harassment in the company’s restaurants. In social media posts this year, the ACLU invited more employees to report their experiences. On Tuesday, Time’s Up released a public letter to McDonald’s leadership, pledging to fight for the workers for “as long as it takes.” And another protest, with some of those who filed new EEOC claims present, took placeon Tuesday afternoon in front of McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago, two days before the company’s annual shareholder meeting.

The EEOC has the authority to investigate complaints, which can be a lengthy process. If it finds merit to a report, it can encourage the parties to resolve the charge informally, with the agency’s help. As a last resort, the EEOC can file a lawsuit. In 2012, for example, it secured a $1 million settlement from a McDonald’s franchise owner in Wisconsin that it had sued over sexual harassment.

Of the 25 filings announced Tuesday, four came from teenagers like Hoyos, now 19. She worked 40 hours a week at McDonald’s, usually nights after school and cheerleading practice.

At first, she hid the unwanted behavior — like the manager’s brushing up against her in the narrow drive-through area, or other co-workers calling her a “whore” — from her parents.

“I was embarrassed,” she states in the complaint. “I felt like I was at fault or that I had done something wrong.”

In a phone interview, she said that because it was her first job, “I just thought that was something you would have to put up with.”

Within her first few months at McDonald’s, Hoyos was named employee of the month, she said, and earmarked for promotion.

“With the promises of moving up, I didn’t want to be the person making noise,” she said. Her family was relying on her income.

Only after she came home crying one day did her parents learn what she was going through. Her father called the store, a franchise location, to ask that the manager be held accountable. Her mother, Maribel Hoyos, also witnessed some of the misconduct at McDonald’s and notified superiors.

But the verbal harassment continued and Brittany was singled out in retaliatory fashion, the complaint says. Eventually, she was fired, she said, after showing up an hour late for one shift and for minor infractions that she said other employees were not punished for.

“Just because you’re going through a lower job in society’s eyes, that doesn’t mean you should have to go through the obstacles and challenges that I did,” she said.

Maribel Hoyos, 35, had been on an upward track too, sent for weekly management training classes, she said. But when she asked about the status of a promised raise, she says in her complaint, a manager asked her to sign a document vowing that she would represent McDonald’s in a positive manner. She said the restaurant wanted her to portray her daughter’s complaints as mere gossip.

When she refused, the complaint says, she was demoted to minimum-wage crew member, with fewer hours. She quit out of frustration soon after.

Paul Dias, who took over ownership of the franchise last year, after the harassment was reported but before Brittany Hoyos was fired and her mother quit, declined to comment Monday.

Jamelia Fairley, 23, a single mother who works in a corporate-owned McDonald’s in Sanford, Florida, participated in the 2018 strike to support a friend. Still, she never expected to be subjected to harassment herself.

But late last year, Fairley said in her complaint, a co-worker began groping her. She reported him and he was later moved to another store. Another employee, who made grotesque sexual comments about Fairley’s 1-year-old daughter, was eventually fired. But, Fairley said in her complaint, after she reported the incidents, her hours were sharply cut, and her requests for a transfer went unheeded. She felt targeted by co-workers for taking action.

Like the Hoyoses, Fairley has family members who work at McDonald’s. She decided to file a complaint and speak out publicly because she wanted to improve conditions for other women.

“I was thinking about my daughter,” she said. “What if she has to work for McDonald’s one day and something like this happens to her? What if no one stands up for her?”

©2019 New York Times News Service