Sexual Harassment in the Fast Food Industry

Munich, Germany - October 24, 2017: The girl receives an order in the interior of the McDonald's fast-food restaurant

#MeToo Protesters across the country are holding McDonald’s accountable for sexual harassment in the fast food industry. But will legal loopholes around franchise agreements keep them from achieving nationwide change?

In this blog post, I will discuss protests by McDonald’s workers which reveal sexual harassment in the fast food industry. I will explain how federal law protects hourly staff including servers, and what protesters can do if they face discrimination or harassment at work.

#MeToo Protests Call Out McDonald’s for Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

On September 18, 2018, fast food workers from McDonald’s in 10 cities around the country walked out. They gathered in protest of unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. In a suburb outside St. Louis, they chanted, “Hold your burgers, hold your fries. Keep your hands off my thighs.” In Kansas City, they carried #MeToo signs where the M reflected the company logo. In Chicago, they walked together wearing tape across their mouths with the symbol #MeToo. Together, the nationwide protests called on fast food giant McDonald’s to do more to prevent sexual harassment in the fast food industry.

The organizers called the event the first in 100 years to protest sexual harassment in the workplace. Protester Kimberly Lawson told the New York Times:

“We’re protesting today and this is more important than work. . . . We have the strength to protect one another and demand the justice we deserve.”

Lawson says she personally has felt trapped when a manager made unwanted sexual advances. Brenda Harris, from Chicago, said that over the more than 20 years she has worked for McDonald’s she had been groped too many times to count.

Title VII and Sexual Harassment in the Fast Food Industry

The protests stem out of efforts to hold McDonalds, and the fast food industry as a whole, accountable for the sexual harassment that happens within its stores. In May, 10 McDonald’s employees filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that male supervisors made unwelcome advances against them, and retaliated against them when they complained.

The complaints are based off of alleged violations of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act. This nationwide law requires employers avoid sexual harassment in employment decisions, and to take reasonable steps to respond when managers’, coworkers’, or even customers’ behavior create a hostile work environment.

Mary Joyce Carlson, a lawyer for the Service Employees International Union and Fight for $15 (its advocacy group), is helping the employees pursue their EEOC complaint. She told the New York Times that the complaint, and how McDonald’s responds to it, could have a lasting effect on sexual harassment in the fast food industry:

“McDonald’s has a huge system, anything it wants to be effective on, it can be,” she said. “The front-line workers, the cooks, the cashiers, as well as people in the management structure, should have a safe place to report a complaint. . . . What McDonald’s does on this issue, how they choose to treat it, how they act on it proactively, will have influence on other stores.”

Who to Sue? Franchise vs Company

But McDonald’s says it’s already doing everything it can. In a statement, the company said:

“We have strong policies, procedures and training in place specifically designed to prevent sexual harassment. . . . To ensure we are doing all that can be done, we have engaged experts in the areas of prevention and response.”

Instead, fast food companies and other restaurants have often pointed the finger down the line, to their franchisees. Franchise arrangements are where one company buys the right to use the branding, trademarks and products of a larger company in exchange for a fee and royalties on profits. Because of the layers of corporate control, it can sometimes be hard to determine who to sue: the franchisee or the corporation.

The franchising company often has policies for everything from advertising to food preparation. Franchisees often don’t have the same degree of established policies and procedures for things like hiring or investigating sexual harassment complaints. That can mean those complaints don’t receive the response they should under the law.

McDonald’s says it has implemented trainings to prevent sexual harassment in its company. But it isn’t clear whether McDonald’s efforts have trickled down to the franchisees. Carlson indicated that in speaking with her clients and the protesters, some workers didn’t even know that the sexual harassment they had experienced in the fast food industry was unlawful, or that they had any recourse when management ignored their complaints.

Fast food companies and other large corporations know how to use corporate structures like franchise agreements to protect themselves from lawsuits. When fast food workers or others employed by franchisees face sexual harassment at work, they need employment discrimination attorneys with the knowledge to cut through the finger pointing and get results.

At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our sexual harassment attorneys can help you review your case, and your legal options, to find a solution to the gender discrimination you experience within the fast food industry. Whether you decide to negotiate with your franchise owner, or file a complaint against the corporation, we will be there to help you get the relief you deserve. If you are facing sexual harassment in the fast food industry, contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

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