NEW YORK - McDonald's (MCD) workers in 19 cities have filed complaints over burns from popping grease, a lack of protective equipment and other workplace hazards, according to labor organizers.
The complaints are the latest move in an ongoing campaign to win pay of $15 an hour and unionization for fast-food workers by publicly pressuring McDonald's to come to the bargaining table. The push is being spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union and began more than two years ago. Already, it has included protests around the country and lawsuits alleging workers weren't given their rightful pay.
The burns and other hazards were detailed in complaints announced Monday and filed with U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in recent weeks. Workers cite a persistent lack of gloves for handling hot equipment and say they're been burned while cleaning grills that have to be kept on. One worker says he was told by a manager to, "put mayonnaise on it, you'll be good."
The complaints also detail a lack of training for handling hot fryers and slipping on wet floors.
A representative for the Labor Department, Laura McGinnis, confirmed the complaints were received by OSHA but said the agency does not discuss ongoing investigations.
In a statement, McDonald's said the company and its independent franchisees are committed to providing safe working conditions for employees and will review the allegations. "It is important to note that these complaints are part of a larger strategy orchestrated by activists targeting our brand and designed to generate media coverage," Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem, a McDonald's spokeswoman, said in the statement.
The complaints extend a central theme of the "Fight for $15" campaign, which has been to hold McDonald's accountable for working conditions at its franchised locations. That would ease the way for worker negotiations and unionization across the company's more than 14,000 U.S. restaurants, the vast majority of which are run by franchisees. McDonald's and other fast-food chains, including Burger King (BKW) and Wendy's (WEN), have said they're not responsible for employment decisions at franchised restaurants.
The matter has reached the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, which said late last year that McDonald's could be named as a joint employer in complaints by workers. The complaints have yet to be heard, but whichever side loses is expected to appeal the decision.
Kendall Fells, organizing director for Fight for $15, said the injuries at both franchised and company-owned restaurants mostly came about because understaffing and employees being told to work too quickly -- both of which he said were the result of a computer system that tracks sales and staffing metrics.
The computer system was also cited in lawsuits last year that allege "wage theft" byMcDonald's and its franchisees for the denial of breaks and overtime pay. That system has been key in the argument by labor groups that McDonald's exerts enough control over franchised restaurants to be considered a joint employer.
Fells noted that workers are looking at every way they can hold McDonald's accountable and that workplace injuries are just the latest issue they're bringing to light.
Although the OSHA complaint system doesn't let workers name joint employers, Randy Rabinowitz, a health and safety legal expert who was hired by the Fight for $15 campaign, said there have been other cases where multiple employers are issued citations for the same violations. She said she's not aware of any such cases involving fast-food restaurants, however.
She said the first onsite OSHA visits triggered by the complaints took place in the past week or so, and that the agency has six months to issue citations.
Mary Vogel, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said in a conference call organized by labor groups that the burns and other hazards detailed in the complaints are "pretty universal" in the fast-food industry.
McDonald's, which saw customer visits at established U.S. locations decline in each of the past two years, has been trying to reinvigorate its image. Earlier this month, the company's chief administrative officer, Pete Bensen, said a big part of the U.S. turnaround will be what the company is doing around "the employment image and our employee-employer relationships."