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Protests Over Sexual Harassment At McDonald's Grow As Shareholders Meet

May 23, 2019
Originally published on May 23, 2019 7:27 pm

Updated at 6:13 p.m. ET

Protesting McDonald's workers were joined by Democratic presidential hopefuls in some of the 13 U.S. cities where employees staged rallies against low pay and the company's handling of alleged sexual harassment.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders joined workers gathered outside the fast-food chain's annual shareholder meeting in a hotel in Dallas via video conference.

"We have got to focus on the fast-food industry, we have got to focus on McDonald's — you guys are being exploited," he told the workers, after pledging to fight for a $15 federal minimum wage.

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee joined the protests in Chicago; Julián Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, in Durham, N.C.; and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in Des Moines, Iowa.

These protests, began seven years ago, calling for higher wages at McDonald's and other fast-food chains. Since then, the workers have added to their list of workplace grievances. Workers like Kimberly Lawson want to see McDonald's recognize a union, which would help address issues like low pay, workplace violence, and sexual harassment.

Last year, Lawson filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging her co-worker groped her. The company didn't address her concerns, she says, and then her manager started sexually harassing her as well.

"After I've seen that nothing was done to the coworker, and he was still actually working the same shift as me, I didn't even bother reporting the manager because at that point I just felt like they didn't care," Lawson says.

Earlier this week, 25 other workers filed sexual harassment complaints with support from the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund and the labor group, Fight for $15. The claims allege everything from lewd comments and groping to retaliation, and the number of such complaints filed against McDonald's over the last three years now totals over 50.

McDonald's says it has strengthened its sexual harassment policy, offering training and an anonymous tip line for employees to report. In a statement, the company said it is committed to providing a "safe and respectful work environment" for its workers.

But Lawson says she feels ignored by the company. As she stood outside the security perimeter of the shareholder meeting in Dallas, attendees walked past the workers. "They're not listening," Lawson said, but by being in their face, she said she hopes to give them no other option.

Coworkers and others chipped in to pay for Lawson's plane ticket from her home in Kansas City to attend the meeting, she says, because she couldn't afford it earning $10 an hour.

She works two jobs at McDonald's, but it's a struggle as a single mom trying to support her 4-year-old girl. "I had to deal with being homeless, I had to deal with so many things [because I wasn't] making enough," she says.

McDonald's says it does not set the wages for most workers, because 90% of its restaurants are franchises, and those franchisees set those wages. It says the average starting wage at its corporate stores is $10 an hour.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

McDonald's workers protesting in 13 cities today carried signs saying, McDonald's, we need to talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We work, we sweat for 15 on our check.

KELLY: Those protesters were joined by four Democratic presidential hopefuls in cities around the country who support their calls for higher wages and better protections against sexual harassment. One of the rallies took place outside the Dallas hotel where the fast food chain held its annual shareholder meeting, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Security guards stopped hundreds of McDonald's cashiers and cooks from entering the shareholder meeting. But just before that, workers got a pep talk from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders joined the protest in Dallas via video conference. He pledged to make it easier to unionize and demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: And now we have got to focus on the fast food industry. We have got to focus on McDonald's. You guys are being exploited.

NOGUCHI: These protests began seven years ago, calling for higher wages at McDonald's and other fast food chains. Since then, the movement has added to its list of workplace grievances and is winning support from Democratic presidential hopefuls. Washington state Governor Jay Inslee joined the protests in Chicago, Julian Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, in Durham and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in Des Moines.

That attention is encouraging to Kimberly Lawson. Last year she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging her co-worker groped her. She says the company didn't address her concerns. Then she says her manager started sexually harassing her as well.

KIMBERLY LAWSON: After I seen that nothing was done to the co-worker and he was still actually working the same shift as me, I didn't even bother reporting the manager because at that point I just felt like they didn't care.

NOGUCHI: Earlier this week, 25 other workers filed sexual harassment complaints with support from the TIME'S UP Legal Defense Fund and the Fight for $15 labor group. The number of complaints filed against McDonald's over the last three years now totals over 50. McDonald's says it has strengthened its sexual harassment policy, offering training and an anonymous tip line for employees to report. In a statement, it said it is committed to providing a safe and respectful work environment for its workers.

But Lawson says she feels ignored by the company. As she stood outside the security perimeter of the shareholder meeting, attendees walked past the workers. Lawson flew to Dallas from her home in Kansas City. Co-workers and others chipped in for her ticket, she says, because she couldn't afford it earning $10 an hour. She works two jobs at McDonald's. It's a struggle, she says, as a single mom trying to support her 4-year-old girl.

LAWSON: I couldn't, you know, really afford to pay my bills. I had to deal with being homeless. I had to deal with so many things behind not making enough.

NOGUCHI: McDonald's says 90% of its restaurants are franchises, and those franchisees set those wages. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.