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McDonald's Workers Say Anti-Harassment Efforts Fall Short

The lawsuit comes on the heels of McDonald's firing its CEO last week for having a consensual relationship with an employee

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    FILE - A morning rush-hour snow falls on a sign outside a Pittsburgh McDonald's restaurant on Feb. 20, 2019.

    A former McDonald's employee is suing the company and one of its Michigan franchisees over sexual harassment.

    On Tuesday, Jenna Ries filed a class-action lawsuit against the fast-food chain. She's one of at least 50 workers who have filed separate sexual harassment charges against McDonald's with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or in state courts over the past three years.

    The lawsuit comes on the heels of McDonald's firing its CEO last week for having a consensual relationship with an employee.

    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 for herself and other affected workers.

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    Sharyn Tejani, the director of the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, said low-wage fast food workers can lose shifts or even be fired if they report harassment to a manager. Former CEO Steve Easterbrook, on the other hand, is still eligible for millions of dollars in salary, incentive payments and stock options. McDonald's said Easterbrook violated company policy forbidding managers from having romantic relationships with direct or indirect subordinates.

    Ries, 32, said the problems in the Mason, Michigan, restaurant began soon after she started working there in the fall of 2017 and continued for more than a year. She alleges that the general manager ignored her co-worker's repeated harassment of her and her colleagues, including groping, physical assault and verbal epithets.

    Ries said she often cried on the way to work and felt physically ill, but she needed the job to pay her bills. Eventually she was transferred to another location, but the co-worker who allegedly harassed her remained at the original location.

    "It's definitely difficult for me to come forward, but I want to encourage other people," Ries told The Associated Press. "I want McDonald's to recognize that they have a problem and make sure this doesn't happen to others."

    A phone number for the franchisee, MLMLM Corp., was disconnected Tuesday morning.

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

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    "They barely have a policy (against sexual harassment)," Ries said.

    McDonald's and its franchisees are required to comply with state and federal anti-discrimination laws. Beyond that, McDonald's generally claims that workers at franchised restaurants are not its employees and doesn't spell out how harassment claims should be handled by franchisees.

    Eve Cervantez, one of Ries' attorneys, said she will argue that McDonald's is responsible for employees at franchised restaurants because the company exerts so much control over franchise operations and employees consider themselves McDonald's workers.

    Last fall, McDonald's Corp. 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.

    "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.

    Last month, McDonald's introduced a new training program for its 850,000 U.S. employees and said franchisees supported it. But franchisees — who own 95% of McDonald's U.S. restaurants — aren't required to offer the training.

    National Transportation Safety Board via AP

    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.

    Gillian Thomas, an attorney with the ACLU who is representing Ries, said the company should make training mandatory and monitor compliance.

    "It's accountability. It's reform we're looking for," Thomas said.

    Tejani said McDonald's should also sit down with workers who have been harassed and ask them what training should look like.