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Former McDonald’s worker sues, alleging retaliation for speaking out about COVID-19 concerns

Other McDonald’s workers continue to file complaints about alleged conditions inside certain restaurants.

Protesters hold banners and ride around in a caravan Thursday outside McDonald’s at 207 E. 35th St. in Bronzeville.
Protesters hold banners and ride around in a caravan Thursday outside McDonald’s at 207 E. 35th St. in Bronzeville.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A former McDonald’s worker in Chicago is suing a franchise operator, accusing the owner of retaliating against him for speaking out about conditions at the fast food chain during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ryan Freeman, 30, of Chicago, filed the lawsuit Thursday in Cook County Circuit Court, to get his job back at the fast food restaurant at 207 E. 35th St., in Bronzeville. Freeman was among those who previously sought legal action against McDonald’s because of working conditions during the pandemic.

Freeman declined to be interviewed but released a statement saying he believed the chain was trying to silence Black workers like himself though it had made statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I spoke out because McDonald’s dropped the ball in protecting me and my co-workers from getting sick,” Freeman said in a statement. “But instead of listening to my concerns, they got rid of me to try to shut me up. We have the right to know if one of our co-workers got COVID and that we might be putting our lives and our families lives at risk.”

In a statement, Akins Akinnagbe, the owner of the Bronzeville restaurant, said he had not yet received a copy of the lawsuit, but he intended to challenge it.

“Upon purchasing my franchise from another organization, my team assessed our needs, followed our normal hiring process and hired approximately 50% of the employees from the previous organization,” Akinnagbe said in the statement. “Our organization is proud to offer employment and opportunity to a diverse local workforce and serve the community delicious food every day.”

Akinnagbe said workers are offered paid sick leave, and they are limiting crew sizes to maintain social distancing and doing weekly cleanings and sanitations because of the pandemic.

In May, Freeman was among nine McDonald’s workers and their family members who filed a lawsuit against the restaurant because of working conditions. A preliminary injunction was granted in June that called for the chain to train its employees on social distancing and enforce mask-wearing policies, according to court records.

Protesters ride in a caravan during a protest about conditions during the coronavirus pandemic outside McDonald’s at 207 E. 35th St. in Bronzeville, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020.
Protesters ride in a caravan during a protest Thursday about conditions during the coronavirus pandemic outside McDonald’s at 207 E. 35th St. in Bronzeville.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Freeman had worked at the Bronzeville restaurant since July 2019 while also working at another location, according to the lawsuit. He was terminated from the second location in February but continued to work at the Bronzeville location until about May, according to the lawsuit. He temporarily stopped going to work after learning a co-worker had tested positive for COVID-19.

During that time period and as litigation from the May lawsuit continued, the Bronzeville restaurant changed ownership, and workers were asked to reapply for their jobs, according to the lawsuit. Freeman was among those who reapplied for his job at the location and underwent an interview, the lawsuit stated.

But a week after he testified in court about the alleged conditions at McDonald’s, he was told on June 11 that he would not be given a job because of attendance problems Freeman had at another McDonald’s location, according to the lawsuit.

“We have a gentleman who stuck his neck out,” said Barry Bennett, an attorney representing Freeman.

Bennett said they would like McDonald’s to offer Freeman his job back and are also seeking backpay. Freeman has been unemployed since he was not rehired, Bennett said.

He described Freeman as a whistleblower and believes the chain is retaliating against Freeman because he went public about his alleged working conditions during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think it’s important that the workers know that the law does protect them if they provide information in the way that Mr. Freeman did,” Bennett said by phone.

Workers took part in a caravan outside the Bronzeville restaurant Thursday in support of Freeman.

Adriana Sanchez, of Chicago, has worked at a McDonald’s in Gage Park for two years and has filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration because of concerns about the working conditions during the pandemic.

Adriana Sanchez speaks to the media regarding condition at McDonalds during a protest about conditions during the coronavirus pandemic outside McDonald’s at 207 E. 35th Street in Bronzeville, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020.
Adriana Sanchez talked about working conditions at McDonald’s during a demonstration Thursday outside a restaurant at 207 E. 35th St. in Bronzeville.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

In the last three weeks, Sanchez said she’s heard of about six workers at the restaurant getting sick with COVID-19. In a recent complaint filed by Sanchez, she reported that sick workers were continuing to come to work while others weren’t being told if they had come in close contact with those who tested positive for COVID-19.

Gage Park is part of the ZIP code 60629, which is one of the city’s biggest hot spots for COVID-19.

While customers do wear masks inside the restaurant, some picking up food in the drive-thru don’t wear masks, said Sanchez, who buys her own masks for work.

“We deserve respect,” Sanchez said in Spanish by phone. “We are all humans, and we deserve respect like everyone else. I’m fighting for essential workers’ rights. ... They treat us like an object; if someone dies, they replace us. It’s not OK.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.