As It Happens

This woman is taking on McDonald's in the Me Too era — and she's not alone

McDonald's was accused on Tuesday in 25 new lawsuits and regulatory charges of condoning sexual harassment in the workplace and retaliating against employees who speak up.

Fast-food giant facing 25 new sexual harassment complaints from workers

Ivelisse Rodriguez is a former worker at McDonald's in Connecticut who has filed a discrimination complaint against the company. (Submitted by Ivelisse Rodriguez)

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For Ivelisse Rodriguez, working at McDonald's was more than just a job.

"It was actually my career," Rodriguez, 31, told As It Happens host Carol Off.  "I provided for my daughter with that job. I built credit with that job. I was living the American Dream."

That dream came crashing down five months ago when she was forced to quit her job of 10 years because of what she describes as repeated sexual harassment by two different male supervisors. 

Now she's joining more than a dozen former and current McDonald's employees bringing sexual misconduct claims against the company.

"I am sharing my story because I want to make a difference. I want to be that voice for all the women that are afraid of speaking up, especially with the large number of people, women with temporary visas," Rodriguez said. 

McDonald's and MeToo 

McDonald's was accused on Tuesday in 25 lawsuits and regulatory charges of condoning sexual harassment in the workplace and retaliating against employees who speak up.

The 25 cases include three new lawsuits, two by workers who previously filed charges, and charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The cases announced by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the labour group Fight for $15, and the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund cover alleged misconduct at McDonald's locations in 20 U.S. cities.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

McDonald's has faced more than 50 such charges and lawsuits in the last three years, the ACLU said. 

Current and former McDonald's employees wear tape with '#MeToo' over their mouths as they up to one of their restaurants for a protest in New Orleans on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. (Janet McConnaughey/Associated Press)

For Rodriguez, the trouble began in September 2017.

She'd been working at the McDonald's in East Haven, Conn, since 2008 and had already made several career advancements, working her way up from crew member to assistant department manager.

But one supervisor, she said, didn't take kindly to her progress.

"Once he found out I was trying to push forward for success in the company  .... he started telling me and other co-workers that the only way to move up in the company, to grow in the company, was to perform sexual favours," she said.

He also touched her and her females colleagues inappropriately and made several unwanted advances, her EEOC discrimination complaint alleges. 

"He will get close to me. He will pat me on the back. I felt him patting down my bra," she said. "His behaviour was toxic and it was insulting. It was humiliating."

She says she and her colleagues kept a record of his behaviour and reported it to the store's owner-operator. 

"I was told to trust only in them, that they will take care of the issue, that he will no longer be allowed to be in the store and that I had nothing to worry about," she said.

Then came her second alleged harasser — a shift supervisor who she says started hitting on her repeatedly in October 2018.

When she told him she was not interested, he allegedly retaliated by spreading sexual rumours about her to her colleagues and customers.

Her bosses adjusted her schedule so she wouldn't have to come into contact with him, she said, but that didn't stop him.

"He would come into the store five, six times a day when he was off his shift just to try to get my attention or to see me," she said. "He would call my phone 20 times a day."

Still, she says, nobody called corporate HR.

Instead, she says her store manager advised her to have her boyfriend walk to her to work.

'This issue is really pervasive'

Rodriguez's story is all too common, says her lawyer Emma Roth.

"We see that this is, unfortunately, a very, very widespread problem that McDonald's can't afford to continue ignoring," Roth said.

More than 90 per cent of McDonald's locations are franchised, and McDonald's has long maintained it should not be liable for how employees in franchised restaurants behave.

The logo of a McDonald's Corp restaurant.
McDonald's Corp. was accused on Tuesday in 25 new lawsuits and regulatory charges of condoning sexual harassment in the workplace and retaliating against employees who speak up. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

When asked for comment, McDonald's sent a copy of a letter that its CEO Steve Easterbrook wrote to Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, who supports the workers' cause.

Easterbrook said his company has improved and more clearly defined its harassment policies, has trained most franchise owners, and will be training front-line employees and setting up a complaint hotline.

"McDonald's is sending a clear message that we are committed to creating and sustaining a culture of trust where employees feel safe, valued and respected," he wrote. 

Broke and in debt 

As for Rodriguez, she says the harassment eventually became so overwhelming that she quit — not an easy choice with two children at home.

"It was all just too much. I started suffering from anxiety, depression and I couldn't hang on any longer," she said. "I had to make a decision for my health and my safety and security."

She got her last paycheque in January and her unemployment is going to run out soon. She says she's been forced into debt.

"I haven't been able to find a good paying job yet. I am looking. I'm working very hard to get employed again," she said. "It's a work in process. I am slowly trying to build myself up."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Ivelisse Rodriguez and Emma Roth produced by Chris Harbord.