McDonald’s USA or its franchises from Arizona to New Jersey were accused of failing to respond when workers said they were spanked, grabbed or verbally harassed. Credit: Rui Vieira/PA Wire

More than a dozen McDonald’s cashiers and cooks from across the country have filed individual complaints claiming the fast-food chain looked the other way when managers or co-workers sexually harassed them.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is currently investigating the complaints, and they could eventually lead to sexual harassment lawsuits.

McDonald’s restaurants already have a history of being sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for sexual harassment, according to a review of federal cases by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. In six separate cases, McDonald’s USA or its franchises from Arizona to New Jersey were accused of failing to respond when workers said they were spanked, grabbed or verbally harassed.

In each of those cases, the franchise owners or the corporation settled the cases with the government without admitting wrongdoing. In addition to a financial payout, the restaurants also were required to hire independent monitors, improve harassment investigations or establish a complaint hotline.

It is rare for a business to be sued by the federal government multiple times for sexual harassment. Only 15 American companies and franchise brands fall into this group, according to Reveal’s analysis of cases from 1998 to 2014.

McDonald’s USA spokeswoman Terri Hickey said in a statement that “at McDonald’s, we and our independent owner-operators share a deep commitment to the respectful treatment of everyone. There is no place for harassment and discrimination of any kind in McDonald’s restaurants or in any workplace.”

Hickey said McDonald’s is currently reviewing the new claims.

They also are a test of whether the corporate entity can be held jointly responsible for sexual harassment that happened at the franchise level.

The company oversees 3,000 independent franchises and in the past, these types of complaints would largely have been directed at the individual restaurant owner. But the legal standard could be shifting, and McDonald’s USA has already been a party to the debate.

Last year, 10 McDonald’s workers in Virginia filed a closely watched sexual harassment case that named the corporation in the lawsuit. The workers argued McDonald’s USA should be held responsible because it tells franchises how to run its business, down to how bathrooms are cleaned and how employees are trained. A McDonald’s USA operations manual that has been given to franchise owners suggests a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy.

The Virginia case settled before trial, but the larger question – whether corporations are also liable for labor problems arising from its franchises – remains the subject of an ongoing case that also involves McDonald’s workers who say they were retaliated against when they pushed for better working conditions.

The new raft of accusations come from 15 workers who are part of a group that want to unionize the company and earn a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Cycei Monae, who worked at a McDonald’s in the Midwest, is one of them. She said that while the restaurant is fixated on details such as how customers’ paper bags are folded, it did not take action when she reported that her manager tried to grab her butt and rubbed his genitals against her.

“I really needed that job and the money, and I considered remaining silent,” she said in a statement. “But I believed McDonald’s had my back and would be horrified by the way I was treated. I was wrong.”

Monae filed her complaint against both McDonald’s USA, the corporation, and the franchise that runs the Flint, Michigan, restaurant where she worked.

Concerns about sexual harassment among food service workers are certainly not limited to McDonald’s restaurants. Waitresses, cashiers and bartenders say it’s a  pervasive problem in the industry. A new national survey of fast-food employees found that 40 percent said they had experienced on-the-job sexual harassment. That harassment can be extreme: 10 percent said they’d been groped, 6 percent said they’d had someone else’s genitals rubbed up against them and 2 percent said they had been sexually assaulted or raped.

The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which advocates on behalf of food-service workers, has also argued that workers are susceptible to harassment from customers.

“Women restaurant workers often have to tolerate inappropriate comments and sexual harassment while at work in order to ensure their earnings are not impacted negatively and to maintain job security,” the organization says in a 2014 report on sexual harassment.

In addition to filing complaints with the government, restaurant workers will stage lunch-hour protests Thursday at McDonald’s restaurants in dozens of cities across the country to insist that the company improve the way it handles sexual harassment claims.

Workers will carry signs that read, “McDonald’s, Hands Off My Buns,” and “McDonald’s, Put Some Respect in My Check.”

Bernice Yeung can be reached at byeung@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @bmyeung.

Bernice Yeung is a reporter for Reveal, covering race and gender. Her work examines issues related to violence against women, labor and employment, immigration, and environmental health. Yeung was part of the national Emmy-nominated Rape in the Fields reporting team, which investigated the sexual assault of immigrant farmworkers. The project won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Yeung also was the lead reporter for the national Emmy-nominated Rape on the Night Shift team, which examined sexual violence against female janitors. That work won an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative journalism, and the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. Those projects led to ​​her first book in 2018, “In a Day's Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America's Most Vulnerable Workers.”  

A former staff writer for SF Weekly and editor at California Lawyer magazine, Yeung has had her work appear in a variety of media outlets, including The New York Times, The Seattle Times, The Guardian and PBS FRONTLINE. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree from Fordham University, where she studied sociology with a focus on crime and justice. She was a 2015-16 Knight-Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan, where she explored ways journalists can use social science survey methods in their reporting. Yeung is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.