NOEL KING, HOST:
The McDonald's Corp. is facing allegations of rampant sexual harassment. Yesterday more than 20 new complaints were lodged against McDonald's. The allegations include sexual harassment of low-wage workers and retaliation for reporting it. Everlis Rodriguez (ph) is one person who's come forward. She worked for a McDonald's franchise in Connecticut for 10 years, and she told NPR that she was sexually harassed by her supervisor.
EVERLIS RODRIGUEZ: He got into a habit into getting close to me every day. You know, rubbing on my back. He knew I wanted to grow in the company so that I could fulfill my American dream. You know, put money together for a house, work on my credit, provide for my daughter and my family. So he started assuring me that the only way to grow in the company was to perform sexual favors.
KING: Now, Rodriguez says she reported this but he was allowed to stay. She says she was later assaulted by another supervisor, and she left McDonald's after that. She thinks this has probably happened to other people who are afraid to come forward.
RODRIGUEZ: A lot of the employees have temporary visas, and a lot of them are undocumented. And unfortunately, they are targets. Many of them are afraid to report it because they fear that they may put their immigration status at risk.
KING: Rodriguez and others are being supported by the TIME'S UP Legal Defense Fund. Sharyn Tejani is director of that fund. She's in studio this morning. Sharyn, thanks for coming in.
SHARYN TEJANI: Thank you for having me.
KING: So this new wave of complaints, what stands out to you?
TEJANI: Well, the TIME'S UP Legal Defense Fund has been involved in this issue for - since we started, about 18 months ago. And the fund, which is housed and administered at the National Women's Law Center, helps fund cases of workplace sex harassment, especially for low-wage workers. And in this situation, we're working alongside Fight for $15 and the ACLU and the private attorneys who are bringing these cases.
What stands out for me is the number of cases that are being brought, and how it's all over the country and how the stories, while the details are very specific to the women involved, what happens is, just generally, over and over again, workers are trying to earn a living. These are low-wage workers. They're interested in helping their families. They've got rent to pay. They've got car payments to make. And then the sexual harassment starts. And it often starts with a few comments, or a few gestures or maybe some texts. And then it escalates, and it becomes physical sex harassment, as you heard in the example we just talked about.
TEJANI: And then what happens is, it depends on the worker. Some of the workers try desperately to just make it stop. And that can be trying to change your shifts, trying to change what you wear, trying to, you know, just ignore it, laugh it off, move along. But it doesn't stop when that happens. And then what happens is, when workers are willing to come forward, frequently, they're retaliated against.
KING: And what does retaliation look like?
TEJANI: So for low-wage workers, it can take many forms. For some of them, it's that their shifts get cut. Some are told there's no work for them. Some of them are disciplined for things that, before this, were never, ever a problem. And then still others are flat out terminated. And what we also see is, frequently, the harassers are simply transferred to another store.
KING: McDonald's has about 14,000 locations in North America, and many of them are independently owned. They are franchises. So legally, does the blame lie with them or with the McDonald's Corp.?
TEJANI: So certainly, McDonald's claims that this fact, that the fact that these are franchise-owned, means that they are not responsible for it. But really, I challenge anyone to walk into a McDonald's and eat the food and tell me whether or not it's a franchise situation or owned by the corporate entity. Everything about every McDonald's you enter into is so much the same. And in fact, that's something that McDonald's sells. When you have a Big Mac anywhere, it tastes like a Big Mac somewhere else.
So the fact that McDonald's controls all of that about these franchise locations but suddenly says, we can't control things about sex harassment at these franchise locations, that just doesn't seem credible.
KING: But then if a worker wants to sue, theoretically, would the worker be suing the franchise owner or the corporation?
TEJANI: It can do both.
KING: OK. McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook has said the company has improved its harassment policies. He has mentioned things like training for franchise owners, creating a new complaint hotline. Are these things meaningful steps, do you think?
TEJANI: Well, see, we're always happy when employers are willing to do more, and that's always a good thing. But the things that they're outlining came out in a letter that came out, you know, a few days ago, right around the time of all these additional charges being filed. But what we did yesterday in Chicago, we did that last year in Chicago, as well, where lots of people came forward, and we had a march and workers who had come forward talked about what had happened to them. So the idea that they're putting out a letter a year later - and there was, actually, more charges filed even before that - it's just, it's a little too little, and it's a little too late.
And if you look at what they're talking about, they're talking about, you know, we've got a policy, we've got training. But what they haven't done is sat down and talked to the workers involved, and that's what they really need to do. These workers are on the ground. They know what needs to get done, and their opinion should be taken into account. And another thing is, that letter does not talk about how they're going to work with their franchises. And again, given how much they control, they should be able to work with their franchises on this, as well.
KING: Sharyn Tejani is director of the TIME'S UP Legal Defense Fund. Sharyn, thank you. And we should note, we reached out to McDonald's for an interview, but they did not accept that invitation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.