NEW YORK — Labor organizers say they’ve named McDonald’s and its franchisees in allegations of sexual harassment, marking their latest effort in a push to win higher pay and a union for fast-food workers.
The claims were filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission on behalf of 15 workers who are part of the Fight of $15 campaign, organizers said Wednesday. They allege behavior such as a manager rubbing up against and grabbing female employees. The claims name McDonald’s Corp. as well its franchisees, reflecting the push by labor organizers to build the legal case that the company should be held responsible for working conditions at franchised restaurants.
An EEOC representative said the agency is prohibited from confirming or denying the existence of discrimination charge filings, investigations or administrative resolutions. Information about cases becomes public only if the agency files a lawsuit, which is usually a last resort, the agency said.
Franchised locations account for the vast majority of McDonald’s more 14,000 U.S restaurants. The Fight for $15 push is being backed by the Service Employees International Union, and is seen as a way to open a path to unionization by identifying a single employer across the entire burger chain.
McDonald’s Corp., which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has strongly maintained that it is not responsible for hiring and pay practices at franchised locations and that the programs it offers franchisees are optional. The Fight for $15 campaign has said McDonald’s has the power to strip franchisees of their livelihoods, and exerts considerable control in how their restaurants are run.
Organizers have taken a number of routes to get McDonald’s legally recognized as a joint employer since the Fight for $15 campaign protests began in 2012. That has included filing lawsuits alleging employees weren’t properly paid, and charges with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration over workplace hazards, such as burns from popping grease. Both McDonald’s and franchisees are named as employers in those cases as well.
The National Labor Relations Board is also arguing that McDonald’s should be considered a joint employer in a trial that began earlier this year. That trial involves claims that McDonald’s workers were subject to retaliation for taking part in Fight for $15 protests and strikes. Another such protest is planned for Thursday in about three dozen cities, organizers said.
Joseph Sellers, a lawyer for the Fight for $15 campaign, said the decisions in the various cases will eventually become relevant as courts sort out the joint employer standard.
Richard Freeman, a Harvard professor of economics who said he is not involved in the Fight for $15 campaign, said the courts have not yet looked at the joint employer issue in its entirety. But Freeman noted that many low-wage workers, such as contract workers, are in a similar situation as fast-food workers, where “your employer is not quite your employer.”
Whether McDonald’s and other companies are held accountable as joint employers will depend on whether organizers can show they exerted control over working conditions for employees, Freeman said.