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After CEO's Ouster, McDonald's Workers Sue Company Over 'Systemic Problem' of Sexual Harassment

Mahita Gajanan

McDonald’s workers in Michigan have filed a class action lawsuit that seeks to force the fast-food chain to address what they call a “systemic problem” of sexual harassment across its restaurants.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of McDonald’s employees working at a franchise in Mason, Mich., comes just a little more than a week after Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s former president and CEO, was fired for engaging in a consensual relationship with an employee, violating a company policy prohibiting such relationships.

The lawsuit, which was filed in state court in Ingham County, names one plaintiff: Jenna Ries, 32, who says she was frequently harassed by a restaurant manager while working at a McDonald’s in Mason beginning in 2017 through March 2019. Ries is one of at least 50 McDonald’s workers who have separately filed sexual harassment charges against the company with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund are representing Ries and other employees in the lawsuit. The lawsuit is among the first to be filed as a class action, according to the representatives.

During a press call with reporters on Tuesday, Ries alleges the manager put his penis in her hand when they were standing close to each other. She says he also cornered her against a wall in the restaurant’s walk-in freezer. The lawsuit further alleges that the manager verbally assaulted Ries—calling her a “bitch” and “slut,” among other slurs—and repeatedly grabbed her breasts, buttocks and crotch. He also routinely threatened that Ries would get fired if she did not agree to his sexual propositions, the lawsuit says.

Ries said a general manager witnessed the harassment against her and other workers but did nothing to stop it. Ries also saw her co-workers being harassed, including some who were underage, she said.

“I constantly lived in fear of losing my job,” she said. “I forced myself to go. I’m still dealing with the emotional aftermath.”

The lawsuit arrives as part of a major push to get McDonald’s executives to recognize “pervasive problems of sexual harassment nationwide,” according to the complaint. In May, the ACLU and Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, along with Fight for $15 labor movement, announced that 23 new sexual harassment charges and lawsuits were filed against McDonald’s. Of those, 20 were filed with the EEOC while three were filed as civil rights lawsuits. Two other lawsuits stemmed from earlier allegations of sexual harassment, according to the New York Times.

Apart from the lawsuit, a former employee at a McDonald’s in Detroit filed a separate charge with the EEOC on Tuesday, alleging that she was transferred to another location and had her hours cut to the point that she had to quit her job after she reported that a manager had sexually propositioned her. Also on Tuesday, McDonald’s employees in Michigan who are part of the Fight for $15 movement are going on strike in response to the lawsuit and dozens of complaints filed with the EEOC, representatives for Ries said.

Eve Cervantez, one of the attorneys representing the workers, told reporters on Tuesday that the McDonald’s location in Mason is “emblematic of a systemic problem of sexual harassment at McDonald’s across the nation.”

“We hope this lawsuit sends a message to McDonald’s that it cannot ignore its workers,” Cervantez said. The lawsuit seeks at least $5 million in compensatory damages for Ries and other affected workers, as well as court-ordered policies requiring the fast-food chain to implement anti-harassment measures and a safe system for reporting complaints.

A statement from the McDonald’s Corp. to TIME said the company is “demonstrating its continued commitment to this issue” by implementing training for a safe and respectful workplace in its corporate-owned restaurants. McDonald’s announced in August that its new training program would start in October.