Vanessa Harris and Kimberly Mealer, two former longtime McDonald’s employees who were promoted to assistant managers in a Queens, New York location, have filed a lawsuit against the company alleging that it failed to respond to allegations that their supervisor sexually harassed them and made disparaging racial and sexual comments.
The supervisor, Michael Luria, allegedly groped them and touched their bodies when walking past in tight spaces. He also made references to his penis “at least once a week,” the New York Daily News reports from the lawsuit, using lines like, “Have I told you the one about my penis? Oh, never mind, it’s too long” and “Do you know why they call me Big Mike?” while thrusting his pelvis.
He also allegedly used racial slurs frequently, calling his employees n***er, and said the restaurant got busy at the beginning of the month because black customers “received their welfare checks” then. The two women also say they have inappropriate text messages and racially charged videos he sent to them, including a cartoon of a white man spraying black children with a water hose.
Although Harris says she complained to someone in McDonald’s human resources, she alleges nothing was done. “Instead, this was a case of sweeping allegations under the rug,” their lawyer, James Vagnini, told the Daily News. A McDonald’s spokesperson told the paper, “At McDonald’s, we respect and value everyone. We have a have strict policy prohibiting harassment and discrimination of any kind in our restaurants. We strongly deny the allegations in the suit and will defend vigorously.” For his part, Lauria has denied that he used racial epithets and said some of the videos were just jokes.
While the allegations are damning, the actions Harris and Mealer describe are somewhat common in the food industry. More than one in ten restaurant workers surveyed by ROC United, an advocacy group, report that they or a coworker had experienced sexual harassment on the job. Nearly 37 percent of sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) come from women in the restaurant industry, even though less than 7 percent of women work there. That means restaurant workers report suffering sexual harassment at more than five times the rate for women working in all industries. There were over 25 major cases in the industry over the last four years, half of which involved some kind of sexual assault like groping, hugging, kissing, and other forms of unwelcome contact. The EEOC has in fact called the restaurant industry the “single largest” source of these claims.
Women, who make up the majority of the industry, not only suffer through this harassment, they do it for less: female restaurant workers still earn less and are kept out of the top jobs. Female servers, for instance, make 68 percent of what male ones make, and black female servers make just 60 percent. Part of the problem is that they are concentrated in some of the lowest paid positions: host, counter attendant, food prep, and servers. But they make up just 19 percent of the highest paid job, that of chef. People of color don’t fare much better. Black servers experience a wage gap of nearly $4 at the median. They are also concentrated in lower-paid positions in quick serve restaurants and back-of-the-house roles.