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Former McDonald's workers sue, alleging sexual harassment

Fired McDonald's CEO could get $70M payout

A week after McDonald's fired its CEO for having a relationship with an employee, former workers at the fast-food chain want the company to crack down on sexual harassment in all its restaurants.

On Tuesday, former McDonald's employee Jenna Ries filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against McDonald's and one of its Michigan franchisees. She's one of at least 50 workers who have filed sexual harassment charges against the company with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or in state courts over the past three years.

The suit comes as hundreds of McDonald's workers in Michigan are protesting what they call the company's tolerance of harassment and low wages.

McDonald's fires CEO over relationship with employee

Ries, 32, worked in a franchise restaurant outside Lansing, Michigan. Ries said that, soon after she started working there in the fall of 2017, the harassment began and continued for more than a year. 

She alleges that a co-worker groped her, called her names in front of her co-workers and physically assaulted her repeatedly. The general manager ignored her co-worker's repeated harassment of her and her colleagues, Ries said. Eventually she was transferred to another location, but the co-worker who allegedly harassed her remained at the original location.

"It was so hard for me to go to work but i physically forced myself to go; I needed the money and I thought I had no choice," Ries told reporters Tuesday. "This is not just about me, this is about everyone who deserves to feel safe at work."

The American Civil Liberties Union and the labor group Fight for $15 are among those backing the plaintiffs. The Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, which was founded in response to the #MeToo movement, is also providing legal support. Ries is seeking at least $5 million in damages.

Ries has also filed charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is a precursor to filing civil rights charges in federal court.

The case could take years to resolve. Some of the 50 cases are still being investigated or are in mediation, advocates say. Some have moved from the EEOC to state courts after the EEOC determined there were grounds for a discrimination claim.

Ries said she finds it ironic that McDonald's fired CEO Steve Easterbrook last week for violating a policy forbidding relationships between supervisors and their subordinates.

"They barely have a policy [against sexual harassment]," Ries told The Associated Press.

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McDonald's Corp. said it has taken steps to tackle the problem of workplace harassment. Last fall, it introduced harassment training for its U.S. franchisees and general managers. In January, the Chicago-based company released an enhanced policy against discrimination, harassment and retaliation, and in June it began offering a free hotline for employees.

Last month, McDonald's introduced a new training program for its 850,000 U.S. employees and said franchisees supported it.

"There is a deeply important conversation around safe and respectful workplaces in communities throughout the U.S. and around the world, and McDonald's is demonstrating its continued commitment to this issue through the implementation of Safe and Respectful Workplace Training in 100% of our corporate-owned restaurants," McDonald's said in a statement.

But franchisees — who own 95% of McDonald's U.S. restaurants — aren't required to offer the training.

Gillian Thomas, an attorney with the ACLU who is representing Ries, said the company should make training mandatory and monitor compliance. Without it, the measures the company has touted are "the definition of window-dressing," she told reporters.

"I think most people would be shocked to know that this kind of abuse is still tolerated in the workplace today, at a place that calls itself family-friendly," she said.

Sharyn Tejani, the director of the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, said McDonald's should also sit down with workers who have been harassed and ask them what training should look like.

Tejani said low-wage fast food workers can lose shifts or even be fired if they report harassment to a manager. By contrast, Easterbrook is still eligible for millions of dollars in salary, incentive payments and stock options.

"When women come forward they get treated like this and the CEO gets fired and treated like that?" Tejani asked. "That's such a shocking difference."

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