Emboldened by the #MeToo movement, 10 workers in nine U.S. cities have reported sexual assault in McDonald's franchises and two national advocacy groups are teaming up to lodge sexual harassment complaints against the parent company and the franchises, Associated Press has reported.
Women's complaints come from Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and six other cities. A 15-year-old from St. Louis mentioned alleged groping, propositions for sex, indecent exposure and lewd comments by supervisors. The women reported they were harassed, ignored or mocked and in some cases suffered retaliation after they reported the harassment.
“I felt I had no choice but to tolerate it,” Kimberley Lawson, 25, who makes US$8.75 per hour at a McDonald’s in Kansas City, Missouri, said on a conference call with reporters.
According to the organizers, all of the women now bringing charges are represented by attorneys due to the defense fund’s support as the legal lawsuit underway is supported by TIMES UP Legal Defense Fund and nationwide movement, Fight for $15.
McDonald's claims its franchisees are independent business owners, and that stance has complicated efforts to unionize workers across the entire McDonald’s chain. But, the Fight for $15, which campaigns to raise pay for low-wage workers intends to hold the company responsible for wage and employment issues at franchised locations.
The legal costs of the new lawsuits are being covered by the TIMES UP Legal Defense Fund, which was launched in January by the National Women's Law Center.
The #MeToo movement that exploded last October has emboldened more women to speak out against sexual abuse and has prompted some employers to alter their approach to harassment, according to National Women’s Law Center CEO Fatima Goss Graves.
"Most companies have a policy saying no sexual harassment, but how do you make that work?" Graves questioned in an AP interview. "Right now, because of the huge power disparities, it’s easy to just wait out the complaints and nothing really changes."
The news comes at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court Monday upheld employers' ability to block workers who signed arbitration agreements from filing class-action lawsuits. Sexual harassment cases, however, don't usually fall under class actions because of the unique facts in each case. But, if the workers signed arbitration agreements, that could force the individuals to keep claims out of court.
Reuters reported that Fight for $15 and TIME’S UP are pressing the world’s largest restaurant chain to establish and train employees on a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy and create a safe and effective process for receiving and responding to complaints.
Eve Cervantez, a lawyer with the San Francisco-based public interest law firm Altshuler Berzon, who is working on the new complaints, also reiterated the need to enforce 'zero tolerance policy.'
The women filing charges "want McDonald’s to take sexual harassment seriously and enforce its already existing zero-tolerance policy," she said, according to AP. "We think McDonald’s can use its power and influence to guarantee a safer workplace for all its employees."
Responding to the new claims, McDonald’s spokeswoman Terri Hickey said there is "no place for harassment and discrimination of any kind" in the workplace.
"McDonald’s Corporation takes allegations of sexual harassment very seriously and are confident our independent franchisees who own and operate approximately 90 percent of our 14,000 U.S. restaurants will do the same," Hickey told the Time.
Similar sexual harassment charges were filed by Fight for $15 workers two years ago, and the McDonald’s promised a review of those allegations, the McDonald's spokeswoman didn't respond if there were updates to the review.
Attorneys for the workers will ask the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, EEOC, agency responsible for enforcing federal laws that prohibit workplace discrimination to consolidate or coordinate the newly filed charges, and some of the 2016 charges that remain pending.
According to Reuters, if an EEOC review of the cases finds they have merit, the agency would call on the company to engage in informal settlement talks. If that failed, EEOC could sue the company or issue the workers “right to sue” letters.