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Are Fast Food Workers Subject to Sexual Harassment?

October 4th, 2021
fast food worker

A male Kansas Taco Bell worker is the focus of a lawsuit initiated by a teenage female co-worker. Back in 2017, she claimed he had sexually harassed and raped her. At the time, she was 15 years old, and her alleged aggressor was 17. Although he was charged in a district court, the case was later dismissed through a plea deal, and he was let go. The teenager is now suing the male worker, Taco Bell of America, LLC, Taco Bell Corp., and the company that owns the specific Taco Bell location.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is involved with the case, and after their evaluation the teenager went on to sue for assault and battery, plus intentional infliction of emotional distress. Taco Bell is also being sued for violation of Title VII on sex discrimination and sexual harassment counts as well as negligent infliction of emotional distress and an intentional failure to supervise. The plaintiff is asking for back pay and benefits, job reinstatement, and past and future compensation for emotional distress. She is also seeking punitive damages, other affirmative relief, and a call for the company to establish new policies and practices to protect workers from workplace sexual harassment.

How Widespread is Sexual Harassment in Fast Food Restaurants?

Unfortunately, sexual harassment is widespread in this industry, and this is unacceptable. The sexual discrimination and harassment that took place in Kansas was certainly not an isolated incident; a recent survey showed that two out of five non-managerial female fast-food employees reported sexual harassment on the job. Many experienced significant professional and health consequences as well during and after the abuse. Those who spoke out faced repercussions for doing so, and it was more common for victims to keep quiet to hold onto their jobs.

Some of the most common kinds of sexual harassment that these women face are questions about sexual interests, information about others’ unwelcome sexual interests, touching, hugging, and sexual remarks, jokes, questions, and teasing. Besides the threat of or actual physical violence, these victims have also had trouble sleeping, lack of appetite, anxiety, depression, and significant stress. Many also end up quitting their jobs, cutting back on hours, and changing their schedules to avoid their harassing co-workers.

Female workers are not the only employees who are victimized by sexual discrimination and harassment, though. Another study showed that 70 percent of male fast-food workers experienced the abuse; 90 percent of women were harassed or experienced discrimination. These numbers are higher than for any other industry; many survey respondents described the sexual jokes, propositions, groping, and innuendos as part of the job.

Why is Sexual Harassment So Common in the Fast-Food Industry?

Fast food restaurants usually have a lot of younger female and male employees, who are often inexperienced and insecure, which makes them vulnerable. Owing to their age, they have more limited job options and are also often still in school, so they accept the lower-paying jobs with the flexible hours. For so many employees, these are their first jobs, so they do not yet understand the proper kinds of working relationships between supervisors and other workers.

Add to all that a lot of somewhat older co-workers and managers who may or may not be properly trained, and a blueprint for harassment emerges. Many of these managers are male, and chain restaurants might not be investing enough money into sexual harassment training. According to one source, fast food restaurants have lower margins, so they invest less in their operations.

One way to address the harassment problem is to have staff training sessions that teach about the issue and how to prevent it. It is also important to provide access to a human resources professional within the company, someone who employees can safely reach out to without fears of retaliation. It is also not unusual for customers to sexually harass fast food employees. A lot of these restaurants abide by the customer-is-always-right theory, so managers will not step up to support harassed co-workers. This issue can also be covered in training sessions.

Have There Been Similar Lawsuits in the Past?

In 2018, fast food employees from 10 McDonald’s in different parts of the country staged a walkout to protest unwanted workplace sexual advances. They had #MeToo signs and chanted, garnering attention from national media outlets such as the New York Times. One protestor said she had been groped more times than she could count, while another said she had felt trapped. The protest called on McDonald’s to step up and do more to prevent fast food industry workplace sexual harassment. Several of the company’s employees also filed complaints through the EEOC. They alleged that their male supervisors had made unwelcome sexual advances and retaliated against those employees after they had complained about it.

McDonald’s has had many sexual harassment complaints, as well as some significant lawsuits. In April 2020, a $500 million sexual harassment lawsuit was filed by two female workers on their behalf as well as thousands of other female McDonald’s employees. They claimed that there were violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Florida Civil Rights Act. In July 2021, a U.S. district judge denied the company’s motions to dismiss severe or pervasive sexual harassment cases.

The company was also hit with a class-action lawsuit in November 2019; it has been sued by the federal government for sexual harassment multiple times from 1998 to 2014 as well. In addition to this, there are two other ongoing lawsuits that allege quid pro quo harassment and allegations of sexual assault filed in Los Angeles and St. Louis.

What Should I Do if I am Sexually Harassed at Work?

All employers are legally obligated to protect their employees from workplace hazards, and this includes sexual harassment. They are then in turn responsible for their employees’ actions, meaning that companies can be held liable for the improper, unacceptable conduct. Since fast food restaurants are often franchises, the corporations they belong to have been known to deny responsibility for what their franchise owners and supervisors do. However, these corporations control the food preparation, marketing, restaurant design, and numerous other aspects of the business, so many believe that these chains should also be implementing and enforcing company-wide anti-harassment policies.

Vulnerable fast-food employees may not realize that they are being sexually harassed at work. If they do, they may not know how to report it or be afraid to do so. Large corporations like major fast-food chains have ways to guard themselves from lawsuits, but that does not mean that they are never held responsible. A fast-food employee who is being harassed may not know who to turn to when their manager is abusing them. It can help to speak with trusted co-workers who may be experiencing the same kind of harassment. Family members and support groups can also be good resources.

Fast food restaurants should have employee handbooks that explain how to report workplace sexual harassment and discrimination, but these may not provide clear or reliable information. If there is no specified procedure for reporting the problem or the employee fears retaliation, contacting the EEOC would be the next step. An experienced sexual harassment lawyer can also provide helpful legal guidance, and many offer free initial consultations, which are always kept confidential.

Philadelphia Sexual Harassment Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. Represent Victims of Workplace Sexual Harassment and Discrimination

No one should ever have to put up with sexual harassment, whether it be at home, in a public place, or at work. If you or someone you care for is faced with this unwelcome situation, the skilled and compassionate Philadelphia sexual harassment lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. may be able to help. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, and Cherry Hill, South Jersey.

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