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A New Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Could Be a Huge Blow to McDonald's

Jenna Ries spent more than a year dealing with sexual advances from a manager at McDonald’s, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

by Carter Sherman
Nov 12 2019, 8:11pm

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Jenna Ries spent more than a year dealing with sexual advances from a manager at McDonald’s, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday. He allegedly called the 32-year-old a “bitch” and a “whore,” groped her, and threatened to get her fired from the Michigan store where she worked if she didn’t submit to his sexual advances.

Once, he even allegedly shoved her up against the wall of a walk-in freezer, but Ries managed to escape.

More than a year after McDonald’s workers walked off the job in what’s believed to be the first national strike against sexual harassment, Ries has sued the fast-food giant over what she says was a systemic problem of sex discrimination. And she’s hoping other women will join in: The lawsuit is also seeking to be certified as a class action that would include every female employee at Ries’ old workplace.

The lawsuit is the culmination of months of activism over purported sexual harassment at McDonald’s, one of the largest employers in the United States. Advocates hope it will force the company, whose golden arches symbolize the height of Americana, to take responsibility for harassment at its franchisee-operated locations, which make up about 95% of the chain's U.S. locations.

The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, the powerful anti-harassment group formed by Hollywood actresses in the wake of the #MeToo movement, is footing the bill for the McDonald’s workers’ legal fees. The lawsuit asks for at least $5 million in damages, as well as improved policies to combat sex discrimination across the massive corporation.

Multiple workers saw the manager at McDonald’s harass Ries and other employees, according to her lawsuit. And though Ries reported the alleged harassment to her general manager, the lawsuit says that it didn’t stop. Ries eventually transferred to another store, but both the manager who allegedly harassed her and the general manager who didn’t stop it kept working at McDonald’s.

Over the past three years, McDonald’s employees have filed more than 50 harassment complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is responsible for enforcing federal anti-workplace discrimination laws. In September 2018, McDonald’s employees in 10 cities walked out of work, in what advocates say was the first multistate strike against sexual harassment in the United States.

Eve Cervantez, a lawyer helping to represent Ries, told reporters Tuesday that Ries’ lawsuit is “emblematic of the serious and systemic problem of sexual harassment at McDonald’s restaurants across the nation.” She has also represented many McDonald’s workers who have filed complaints.

“The concept of consequences”

This past summer, McDonald’s announced that its stores would implement new anti-harassment trainings and policies. But Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, said Tuesday that those measures were “the definition of window dressing.” The company developed them without input from actual survivors of sexual harassment at McDonald’s, she said, and did not clarify how harassers at franchisees would be held accountable.

“This concept of consequences is one of the most glaring flaws in the supposed remedies that McDonald’s has put forward, because these measures are mandatory only for corporate-owned stores,” Thomas told reporters on a phone call Tuesday. The ACLU is also representing Ries.

While McDonald’s encourages its 2,000-plus U.S. franchisees to enact its new policies, they are not required to do so. Ries worked for a McDonald’s location run by a franchisee.

“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 told VICE News in an email. McDonald’s declined to comment specifically on Ries’ lawsuit and the allegations in it.

For Time’s Up and the ACLU, the lawsuit is a test of the movement’s ability to enact legal change for women who don’t happen to be wealthy movie stars.

“We believe that if we could effect change at McDonald’s, the gold standard in fast food, we could truly move the needle in combating harassment in one of the most abusive sectors in the American workplace,” Thomas said.

Earlier this month, McDonald’s CEO Scott Easterbrook was fired for having a relationship that violated company policy, which forbids employees from having a romantic or sexual relationship with subordinates. Despite his ouster, Easterbrook is expected to receive about $40 million in compensation from McDonald’s over the next few years, the New York Times reported.

“There are different rules for people at the top than for people who are actually earning the profits for the company everyday,” Thomas said.

Cover image: McDonald's workers carry a banner and march towards a McDonalds in south Los Angeles on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. Emboldened by the #MeToo movement, McDonald's workers have voted to stage a one-day strike next week at restaurants in 10 cities in hopes of pressuring management to take stronger steps against on-the-job sexual harassment. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

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