Last year as Elvira Gonzalez was mopping the floor outside a bathroom in the Chicago-area McDonald’s where she worked, a customer came in and started yelling at her. Then he picked up the “Wet Floor” sign and hit her over the back, an incident that has left her with chronic pain to this day. On another occasion, a customer came into the men’s bathroom while she was cleaning it, exposed his genitals and groped her. When she ran out screaming and told her manager what happened, she says he laughed and said she should let him “make love to you.” The same man has returned to the restaurant multiple times and continued verbally harassing her, but her managers have refused to call the police and said that he was “flattering” her.
“I worry every day I come to work at McDonald’s because McDonald’s does not prioritize our safety,” Gonzalez said in a statement to the press.
McDonald’s workers have been protesting for years to demand better pay. Now workers who are part of the Fight for 15 have added a new demand: that the company take steps to protect them from the kind of workplace violence that Gonzalez has endured.
On November 21, Gonzalez, along with 16 other McDonald’s employees who work in 13 restaurants across the city of Chicago, filed a lawsuit arguing that employees “face a daily risk of violence while at work” because of the way the company designs its restaurants, as well as its decision to keep locations open overnight without instituting best practices for the spike in violence during late night hours.
Those incidents, the lawsuit alleges, include customers jumping over the counter to threaten workers with guns or throw equipment at them, customers exposing themselves and groping employees, and physical and verbal harassment. At one location, employees discovered a dead body and large amounts of blood in the bathroom.
The workers argue that the company is responsible for failing to protect its employees from this kind of violence. “The incidents described in this complaint are not random or unforeseeable,” the suit states. “Rather, they are part of a citywide and nationwide pattern at McDonald’s restaurants. Further, they are the result of choices made by McDonald’s that undermine safety.”
In response to a request for comment on the lawsuit, a company spokesperson sent a statement to Truthout saying, “McDonald’s takes seriously its responsibility to provide and foster a safe working environment for our employees, and along with our franchisees, continue to make investments in training programs that uphold safe environments for customers and crew members. In addition to training, McDonald’s maintains stringent policies against violence in our restaurants.”
But the lawsuit argues that restaurant operators have ignored best practices that protect workers’ safety, such as creating “strong physical barriers” between employees and customers at places with late night hours. Instead, it says, the company has removed or decreased counters nationwide to create a more modern look. After the counter was lowered at one restaurant in 2018, several customers jumped on top of it or over it to assault employees, including an instance where one waved a gun.
On top of that, drive-thru windows are designed such that workers can’t avoid direct contact with customers, making them vulnerable to physical and verbal assaults, while bathrooms have no locks. Some workers have been told not to post signs saying bathrooms are out of service during cleaning, which employees say leaves them vulnerable to sexual violence.
And yet despite the high volume of 911 calls made from restaurants — 20 a day in Chicago, for example — the workers claim that their managers discouraged them from calling law enforcement, “seemingly out of a misguided belief that a police presence would repel customers,” according to the lawsuit. One manager allegedly threatened to suspend anyone who reported an attack. The lawsuit also claims that the company doesn’t provide basic safety training.
These experiences have left workers with “physical and psychological harm,” the lawsuit says. “We shouldn’t have to put ourselves in harm’s way just to support our families,” Sonia Acuña, a McDonald’s employee and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement. “That’s why we’re suing McDonald’s … because it’s life or death for us.”
“Throughout the country, McDonald’s workers are regularly threatened, assaulted and injured by customers,” Danny Rosenthal, a partner at James & Hoffman and the lead attorney on the case, said in a statement to the press. “The Chicago area is a prototypical case.”
The lawsuit also points to a number of media reports on violence in Chicago area restaurants, including someone who was shot and killed in May 2019. Indeed, a previous analysis of media reports found that there were 721 instances of violence at McDonald’s locations across the country over a 3-year period, or one every 36 hours, including shootings, sexual assaults, robberies, and other forms of harassment and violence. And that’s just what gets covered in the media — there are almost certainly far more that have gone unreported.
While some of the restaurants where the violence occurred are owned by franchisees, not the corporation itself, the Chicago workers argue that McDonald’s is still aware of the problem and retains control of design, training and policies at its locations. It has a nationwide security team and receives regular crime reports. It is therefore, they say, obligated to protect employees at all restaurants.
The lawsuit is not the first action workers have taken to draw attention to this problem. In May, workers went on strike across Chicago to protest violence at their restaurants. They also filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that calls for a systemic investigation into workplace violence across the country. Workers in St. Petersburg, Florida, also went on strike this year after an employee was assaulted by a customer.
These actions also come amid workers’ campaign to get the company to address sexual harassment and assault faced by its employees. Workers have filed a number of lawsuits against the company claiming that they were harassed by managers and coworkers, including being groped, propositioned and sexually assaulted. Out of frustration with what they say is a lack of response from the company, they also staged the first-ever nationwide strike over sexual harassment last year and have followed it up with subsequent actions.