October 22, 2020

McDonald’s employees not lovin’ workplace safety conditions


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McDonaldsBy Rebekah Mintzer, From Corporate Counsel

Fast-food restaurants have been under a lot of scrutiny recently, with much of the pressure coming from their own employees. And McDonald’s Inc. is no exception. The golden arches have been the target of employee suits related to wage-and-hour laws, and have been the subject of widespread protests to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers. Now, McDonald’s has another item to add to its menu of employment headaches: allegations of serious workplace safety violations.

Some 28 McDonald’s workers from 19 U.S. cities have filed complaints this month with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, claiming that their employer has failed to take proper measures to keep them safe on the job. The workers, who detailed these alleged dangers on their own website, say that McDonald’s creates dangerous conditions by combining understaffing with pressure to work too quickly. Specific allegations include a lack of basic first-aid kits and protective gear in the workplace, and reports that supervisors tell workers to treat burns in the kitchen with condiments.

“My managers kept pushing me to work faster, and while trying to meet their demands I slipped on a wet floor, catching my arm on a hot grill,” Brittney Berry, a Chicago McDonald’s worker, said in press release. “The managers told me to put mustard on it, but I ended up having to get rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. This is exactly why workers at McDonald’s need union rights, so we have a voice to make the company take responsibility for the dangers it creates in its stores.”

The workers filing complaints are supported by the minimum wage activist group Fight for $15, which in turn is backed by the Service Employees International Union, a group that has been jockeying to organize fast-food workers for several years. It appears that the OSHA complaints—regardless of the level of truth in the allegations—are part of a larger movement by unions across the country to access the untapped potential for union membership at fast-food restaurants.

It’s not so unusual for unions that want to organize in a workplace to use safety violation accusations as a way of making the company look like it mistreats its workers, explained Thomas Wassel, a partner at Cullen and Dykman. “It’s not unlike the inflatable rat you see at certain sites when there are employment disputes,” Wassel told CorpCounsel.com. In this case, OSHA could slap McDonald’s with fines as well.

According to Howard Mavity, a partner at Fisher & Phillips and co-chairman of the firm’s workplace safety and catastrophe management practice group, unions have had to find creative ways to organize fast-food workers because these jobs tend to be somewhat transient and have high turnover rates. “The current popular message with a lot of the more aggressive unions is to make lives miserable for the employer in hopes that they will eventually, in essence, voluntarily recognize them,” he told CorpCounsel.com.

McDonald’s might not be miserable yet, but it did feel compelled to address the complaints. “McDonald’s and its independent franchisees are committed to providing safe working conditions for employees in the 14,000 McDonald’s brand U.S. restaurants,” the company said in a statement to Bloomberg. “We will review these allegations. It is important to note that these complaints are part of a larger strategy orchestrated by activists targeting our brand and designed to generate media coverage.”

Out of the 28 OSHA claims, nine are directed at restaurants owned by McDonald’s corporate, and the rest at franchisees. However, it looks as though the claims could be another attempt to make McDonald’s the franchisor responsible for its franchisee behavior as well. This wall between the two has traditionally been difficult to break, but cracks have started to show. The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, Richard Griffin Jr., announced last year that in his view, McDonald’s corporate holds enough control over its franchisees’ employment and labor practices so that it may be deemed a “joint employer” with franchisees.

Though it remains to be seen how far the legal system will stretch franchisor-franchisee relationships, and how valid the workers’ claims against McDonald’s actually are, the filings can serve as a reminder about the importance of workplace safety compliance.

Mavity explained that sometimes managers at fast-food establishments are directed to place their focus on keeping the food itself safe, at the expense of other kinds of safety. “It’s not that they don’t care about workplace safety, it’s just that they are driven so vigorously by food security and safety,” he said.

In a recent blog post about the McDonald’s complaints, he pointed to some of the most common violations that an OSHA inspector might find in a restaurant, such as trip hazards and water accumulation on floors, as well as blocked exits, fire extinguishers and electric panels, and lack of adequate protective gear and training for employees handling kitchen chemicals.

However, Mavity emphasized that true worker safety doesn’t just begin and end with OSHA. He advises that employers ensure OSHA compliance, but also look beyond that to other potential hazards that OSHA rules might not cover. “You can have perfect OSHA compliance and an unsafe workplace, and you can have a very safe workplace and bad OSHA compliance—they aren’t mutually exclusive,” he noted.

And the benefits of a consistently safe workplace aren’t just about staying out of legal trouble. They often include a happier and more productive workforce. “It’s better for employees’ morale if they know the employer is doing right by them,” Wassel said.

Photo: nnecapa, via Wikimedia Commons

For more on this story go to: http://www.corpcounsel.com/id=1202721042074/McDonalds-Employees-Not-Lovin-Workplace-Safety-Conditions#ixzz3V37bMX3a


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