McDonald's workers file lawsuit to address workplace violence

Key Points
  • Seventeen McDonald's workers sue the company, alleging the fast-food chain has failed to address violence in the workplace.
  • In May, McDonald's workers file a complaint with U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
  • The plaintiffs' lawyers will not be arguing that McDonald's is a joint employer.
An employee hands a drive-thru customer his order at a McDonald's restaurant in Oak Brook, Illinois.
Tim Boyle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Seventeen Chicago McDonald's workers are suing the company, alleging that the fast-food chain has failed to address violence in the workplace.

In May, McDonald's workers filed a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, asking the agency to investigate a pattern of violence in the restaurants. In the company's home city of Chicago, on an average day, 911 receives more than 20 calls from McDonald's restaurants, according to the lawsuit.

The suit argues that McDonald's, in its capacity as a landlord, has failed to design its stores to minimize violence. For example, as part of its nationwide remodeling project that includes installing self-order kiosks and digital menu boards, many locations now have split counters. The counters' wide openings and lowered height mean that it is easier for customers to walk behind or jump on top of the counter and confront employees.

The lawsuit also alleges that McDonald's has failed to provide proper training to employees for how to handle conflict in its restaurants. In August, McDonald's announced new training for supervisors and employees, but the plaintiffs said that they have not yet received training.

The lawsuit is seeking an injunction, which would mean putting a halt to McDonald's pricey renovations, which have cost the company and its franchisees billions of dollars. About two-thirds of McDonald's U.S. locations have been renovated, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

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Each of the 17 plaintiffs has been either a victim of violence or a witness to violence against fellow employees.

Unlike prior lawsuits, the plaintiffs' lawyers will not be arguing that McDonald's is a joint employer. In October, an appeals court sided with McDonald's, finding that it was not a joint employer at stores operated by franchisees.

"McDonald's takes seriously its responsibility to provide and foster a safe working environment for our employees, and along with our franchisees, continue to make investments in training programs that uphold safe environments for customers and crew members," the company said in a statement. "In addition to training, McDonald's maintains stringent policies against violence in our restaurants."

The lawsuit filed Thursday comes after the fast-food giant announced both a new CEO and a new president of McDonald's USA. The company's new CEO, Chris Kempczinski, who took over after the board fired Steve Easterbrook, asked employees for feedback about McDonald's on Monday in a message obtained by CNBC.

In the wake of the executive shakeup, the Fight for $15 and a Union, a fast-food workers' rights coalition, has been putting more pressure on McDonald's to address the company's role in workers' safety. Shortly after Easterbrook's firing, McDonald's cooks and cashiers filed a class-action lawsuit with the support of the Fight for $15 over the company's sexual harassment policies and culture.

McDonald's shares were trading down less than 1% on Thursday. The stock, which is valued at $149.1 billion, is up nearly 9% since the start of the year.