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In nationwide protest, McDonald’s workers allege culture of sexual harassment has gone unchecked for years

Mauricio Bautista was eating a McChicken sandwich to the sound of jazz music at McDonald’s when more than 100 women stormed in with banners, bullhorns and red and yellow fliers, shouting “Keep your burgers, keep your fries, we don’t need your sexist lies.”

It was a dose of harsh #MeToo reality for a multibillion-dollar corporation whose golden arches have drawn children and families to share a Happy Meal for decades. On Tuesday, a group of about 150 people said it had had enough with the illusion of a family-friendly eatery and wanted the company to react to allegations of widespread and systemic sexual harassment at its restaurants.

The organization Fight for $15, which formed to fight for fair wages in the restaurant industry, organized the nationwide protest after learning about repeated cases of harassment that female employees experienced over several years, organizers said. In May, 10 sexual harassment charges were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Another charge was filed Tuesday after the walkout by an employee in St. Louis, and 17 more were filed in 2016.

The group is asking the EEOC to consolidate and investigate all 10 charges filed in May and any additional allegations of sexual harassment that are still pending. Then, a lawsuit may follow.

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At least one Los Angeles woman, Elsy Rodriguez, 36, has filed a civil lawsuit against the fast-food giant, alleging a male coworker sexually harassed her at a McDonald’s in South Los Angeles from 2015 to 2017.

“I was stressed and I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I was scared. I didn’t know what he would do if I had reported him.”

Rodriguez said that when she notified supervisors, they didn’t take her seriously. The effects of the harassment spilled into her personal life, she said, and she grew absent-minded when she was home with her husband and children.

She was silent for a long time, enduring the harassment because she didn’t want to lose her job, she said. Now, Rodriquez wants McDonald’s to be held accountable and implement stricter policies on sexual harassment.

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The protesters are calling for the restaurant to create an anti-sexual harassment committee; strengthen and enforce the zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment outlined in its manual; and hold mandatory training for managers and employees that they allege so far has been non-existent.

McDonald’s said in a statement Tuesday that it has strong policies, procedures and training in place aimed at preventing sexual harassment.

The company said it was also working with sexual harassment prevention experts such as RAINN — short for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, a nonprofit anti-sexual assault organization — for guidance so that “everyone who works at McDonald’s does so in a secure environment every day.”

The EEOC did not confirm the charges, because the claims are confidential until they are filed in court, spokeswoman Nicole St. Germain said. Employees are required to bring their claims to the EEOC, which notifies and requests correction by the establishment before a lawsuit is filed.

The event Tuesday was framed as a strike and protest by organizers, but employees at the Florence Avenue McDonald’s continued working through the chants. One protester attempted to hand a letter to the restaurant’s manager. He did not accept it.

The protesters wore red and held banners that read “#Metoo McDoanld’s” and “No more sexual harassment McDonald’s” in Spanish. They chanted “Hey hey ho ho sexual harassment has got to go.” One customer grew irritated and yelled at protesters, shoving away news cameras as she walked out of the restaurant.

The group moved outside the building to hold a news conference.

Similar scenes unfolded in 10 cities across the country, including San Francisco, Chicago, Kansas City, Mo., and Miami.

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In Los Angeles, #MeToo activists and members of the Bernie Sanders Brigade, the L.A. Tenants Union and Union de Vecinos participated in the demonstration, along with local union members.

“McDonald’s is one of the largest employers in the country. If you can change the culture at McDonald’s, that would help many women who work there and many women who work at other places too,” said Eve Cervantez, an attorney representing the 10 women who have filed charges with the EEOC.

Cervantez said the problem is endemic but has not garnered as much attention as celebrities have with the #MeToo movement in Hollywood.

A survey by Hart Research Associates found that about 42% of women in the industry who experience sexual harassment feel forced to accept it because they can’t afford to lose their jobs, and that 1 in 5 women who report it were retaliated against. In some cases they were given fewer work hours or their schedules were changed.

“Low-wage workers often don’t have access to the media and lawyers that celebrities do,” Cervantez said. “I appreciate that it’s difficult for celebrities to come forward, but I would say it’s much more difficult for low-wage workers to come forward because they don’t have a safety net.”

Cervantez said fast-food workers are especially vulnerable, because many of them are teenagers.

In one EEOC sexual harassment charge provided by attorneys, an unnamed woman described a male co-worker asking her what sexual positions she liked, spanking her multiple times in the store’s walk-in refrigerator and forcefully grabbing her by the wrist.

When she complained to one manager that a co-worker spanked her, “she just said ‘OK,’ as if it were not a big deal,” according to the document. The woman also said she didn’t receive any training regarding sexual harassment and was not aware of any sexual harassment policies at her workplace.

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The Times Up Legal Defense Fund is financially supporting lawsuits filed by McDonald’s employees, Cervantez said.

The Fight for $15 has established a hotline for fast-food workers who experience sexual harassment to get free and confidential legal support. Employees can call (844) 384-4495.

alejandra.reyesvelarde@latimes.com

Twitter: @r_valejandra

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Twitter: @latvives


UPDATES:

4:50 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from McDonald’s.

This article was originally published at 3:35 p.m.


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