More than two dozen current and former McDonald's workers filed sexual harassment complaints Tuesday to confront what they say is widespread misconduct at the fast-food behemoth.
Twenty of the 25 complaints were filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to the labor group Fight for $15; the rest will play out in civil court. The allegations include groping, indecent exposure, propositions for sex and lewd comments—behavior that reportedly took place at corporate and franchise stores in 20 cities.
The action was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, an initiative created to help people who have been sexually harassed at work, especially in low-wage jobs. Since the fund began, thousands of workers have requested legal help, highlighting the influence of the #MeToo movement and its reach beyond Hollywood and the entertainment industry.
Among the complainants is a New Orleans woman whose manager dismissed her groping complaint because she was "probably giving sex appeal" and a Chicago worker who says she was fired after complaining about a manager who offered to expose himself to her, according to the legal defense fund. Four of the cases involve teenagers.
The filings against McDonald's are part of a broader push that began in 2016 to hold the company accountable for what cooks and cashiers say are inadequate responses to complaints of harassment.
"I was subjected to a humiliating and intimidating environment at McDonald's and managers did nothing to stop it," said Jamelia Fairley, who works at a corporate restaurant in Sanford, Florida. "To make matters worse, after I reported the sexually explicit language and inappropriate touching I regularly faced, my hours got cut, making it nearly impossible for me to support my daughter."
This is the third round of complaints brought on by McDonald's workers in recent years, according to Fight for $15, bringing the total number to 50.
"McDonald's refuses to take responsibility for harassment experienced by employees in its restaurants," said Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "With this new round of filings, we are seeking relief for them while calling on shareholders to call the company's management to account."
The restaurant industry has one of the nation's highest rates of sexual harassment claims, according to an analysis of government data. A 2016 survey found that women in the fast food sector face particularly abusive working conditions, with upward of 40% saying they've encountered unwanted sexual behavior on the job. Of those who reported misconduct, more than 20% say they faced retaliation—including cut hours and denied raises—for reporting misconduct.
The Chicago-based company declined to comment for this report. But CEO Steve Easterbrook, addressing the harassment allegations in a letter dated Monday to Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said McDonald's is "committed to creating and sustaining a culture of trust where employees feel safe, valued and respected."
He said the chain has updated its policy to better inform employees of their rights, provided training to most restaurant owners and general managers, and plans to provide harassment training for front-line crew members and launch a reporting hotline in the coming months.
McDonald's has 14,000 locations in the U.S. About 1,000 are corporate owned, while franchisees operate the rest. Altogether, it employs about 850,000 people.
The employees behind the filings say such anti-harassment reforms have not led to change. Of the 25 complaints, 20 were brought to the EEOC, three were civil rights lawsuits, and two additional lawsuits were tied to previous complaints.
They are calling on the fast-food giant to guard against sexual assault and harassment in the workplace and to provide comprehensive training for employees and managers. They also seek guarantees of a process to report harassment and safeguards against retaliation for reporting misconduct.
The EEOC has the authority to investigate workers' complaints of discrimination. Once a charge has been filed, the agency assesses the allegations, and if it finds that discrimination has occurred, it will help the parties resolve the matter through an informal process. If a worker and employer can't find a resolution, however, the EEOC can sue the organization or allow the worker to file a lawsuit. Many of the EEOC charges filed against McDonald's beginning in 2016 are still pending. And two of Tuesday's lawsuits are tied to previous charges with the agency.