McDonald’s Faces $500M Lawsuit for “Systemic Sexual Harassment”

McDonald’s Faces $500M Lawsuit for "Systemic Sexual Harassment"
“McDonald’s is failing to keep workers like me and Ashley safe from harassment. No one should have to go through what we’ve been through. But we’re strong, and together we have a voice. We’re using that voice to hold McDonald’s accountable,” Fairley said. (Mike Mozart)

McDonald’s is facing a $500 million sexual harassment class-action lawsuit in Florida.

Represented by the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund (a legal charity with origins in #MeToo), the plaintiffs Jamelia Fairley and Ashley Reddick are suing on behalf of an estimated 5,000 women throughout 100 franchise-owned McDonald’s restaurants.

“Numerous women were subject to pervasive sexual harassment and a hostile work environment, including groping, physical assaults and sexually-charged comments,” according to a press release about the lawsuit.

Both women, whose complaints originate from a McDonald’s in Sanford, Florida, allege they were harassed by multiple McDonald’s employees at work—and saw other women encounter the same.

Fairley and Reddick initially filed charges in May of 2019 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission dismissed the case in January, but informed both women they had the right to sue McDonald’s within 90 days—even in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fairley was harassed by two coworkers, the lawsuit alleges. One started harassing her with sexually explicit comments, such as referring to her “fat ass.”

“I tried to brush the comments off, but soon enough it turned into unwanted touching,” Fairley said.

This touching included her perpetrator rubbing his genitals on her. Another harasser asked how much it would cost to have sex with Fairley’s daughter—who was one year old.

Numerous times, Fairley complained to her higher-ups. Instead of addressing the behavior, they cut her hours. 

“It’s unacceptable that as the second largest employer in the country, McDonald’s is failing to keep workers like me and Ashley [Reddick] safe from harassment,” Fairley said, who has worked for four years as a crewmember in Sanford. “No one should have to go through what we’ve been through. But we’re strong, and together we have a voice. We’re using that voice to hold McDonald’s accountable.”

Reddick faced similar attacks, starting with verbal harassment from male coworkers like, “I didn’t know you had boobs like that.”

The situation then escalated to the perpetrator rubbing his genitals on her and showing her an unwanted picture of his privates. Upon telling a manager, she was assured the situation would be addressed. Soon, her harasser followed her into the bathroom to continue making explicit remarks.

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Reddick asserts she was also harassed by customers. Like Fairley, when she reported the problem, her hours were cut.

“The sexual harassment only stopped when the harasser left his job,” Reddick said.

She was, according to a lawyer on the case, “described as being confrontational” and not called back into work. After about three years at McDonald’s, she received notice of her termination.

“I believe they fired me for reporting my harassment,” Reddick said, “and that’s not right.” 

“It’s About Changing Practices Going Forward”

An August 2013 march in Chicago protesting poverty wages, sexual harassment and wage theft that are endemic to the company culture at McDonald’s. (Steve Rhodes)

Sexual harassment is pervasive across the fast food industry, and McDonald’s is no stranger to sexual harassment lawsuits. In fact, at least 50 people filed sexual harassment charges against McDonald’s between 2016 and 2019.

McDonald’s has historically claimed they lack responsibility for harassment at independently-owned stores, which make up about 95 percent of McDonald’s locations in the United States.

But, the suit addresses only franchised-owned McDonald’s across Florida, of which there are about 100—more than in any other state.

“There can be no doubt that McDonald’s bears direct responsibility for these workers, and the hostile atmosphere and abuse that they suffer,” the suit alleges.

In addition to suing for damages, the plaintiffs are also asking McDonald’s to put tools in place to combat sexual harassment throughout their corporation. 

“McDonald’s has been trying to escape responsibility for horrific sexual harassment reported by women at its restaurants across the nation, claiming that it is not responsible because they are operated by franchises,” said Eve Cervantez of Altshuler Berzon, the lead attorney on the case.

She continues, “This class action lawsuit seeks to hold McDonald’s accountable for sexual harassment reported by women who work at McDonald’s corporate owned and operated restaurants, by challenging McDonald’s corporate policies and practices that condone and foster a hostile workplace for women workers.”

Cervantez boasts decades of experience with class action lawsuits. She originally attended Harvard Law School to pursue international law, but was soon swept away by campus activism and has dedicated her life to bettering the conditions of workers.

In regards to previous lawsuits against McDonald’s, she said, “It’s about changing practices going forward so employers treat people fairly.”

Sexual harassment comes from both the ground-up and top-down: Last year, former McDonald’s CEO Stephen Easterbrook was fired when a sexual relationship he had with an employee was uncovered. Although the relationship was reported to be consensual, it was clearly against McDonald’s policy and demonstrates that those in the highest positions of power paid no mind to company policy. McDonald’s rewarded Easterbrook’s behavior with what could amount to a $40 million-plus exit package. 

McDonald’s has announced the implementation of training to address issues like sexual harassment—but this has clearly done little to help victims in McDonald’s restaurants.

Further, harassment has not reached extremes only in the United States, but is a global phenomenon: workers in Brazil, the United Kingdom and France have alleged similar work conditions at McDonald’s locations. 

In Fairley v. McDonald’s Corp., the court will examine if McDonald’s violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Florida Civil Rights Act.

“Jamelia and I are filing this lawsuit on behalf of McDonald’s workers across Florida because the company needs to step up and protect us,” Reddick said. “We’re not the only ones who have been sexually harassed while on the job at McDonald’s—in our store, in Florida and across the country. This is a nation-wide problem, the company has known about it for years and we won’t stop speaking out until McDonald’s listens to us.”

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Audrey Andrews is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is an archaeologist, runner and feminist. Audrey graduated from Columbia University.