Not lovin it behind the counter: McDonald's fails to keep workers safe

519 of the 721 attacks reported in McDonald's restaurants in the last 3 years involved a gun

Published May 25, 2019 10:00AM (EDT)


In early January, a viral video depicted a young McDonald’s worker in St. Petersburg, Fla. furiously trying to protect herself as a belligerent male customer grabbed her shirt and attempted to pull her over the counter — all because he couldn’t find a straw at the condiment station. Luckily, she was strong and was able to fight back until her coworkers intervened to help protect her. The customer kicked another female employee in the stomach as he was escorted out of the store.

As this violent scene unraveled, there was no panic button around for workers to press. No alarm went off. Workers had never been trained on what to do in these situations. In fact, during the initial attack, the manager seemed frozen in place.

Workplace violence like this viral incident is not uncommon at McDonald’s stores; it happens almost every day. McDonald’s is failing in its legal and moral responsibility to protect workers. It must do more to correct course.

The government’s workplace safety agencies have for decades identified violence as a real and common workplace hazard facing workers in retail and restaurants.  The agencies also make it very clear that these instances can — and must — be mitigated and prevented by companies implementing common sense solutions.

Yet, an analysis of news reports catalogs a clear pattern of violence that continues to occur at McDonald’s stores on a routine basis — shootings, belligerent customers, violent robberies, sexual assaults and battery. Just in the last three years, the media has reported 721 incidents of workplace violence at McDonald’s stores across the United States.

Take the assault on a 16-year-old young woman working at a South Carolina McDonald’s drive-thru, where a customer drove up to her window and threw hot coffee in her face. The customer complained about having to wait too long for an order of fries.

Or the McDonald’s workers in Omaha who faced a gunman demanding they turn over their cash. This marked the store’s second robbery at gunpoint in just six weeks.

Many McDonald’s workers don’t have one violent experience to recount, but numerous: “I have witnessed so many fights and robberies,” said one Chicago McDonald’s worker. “Once a man hit me on my back with a yellow wet floor sign because he wanted to use the bathroom that I was cleaning. Another time, a customer got into a fight with the cashier and hit her.”

Even more alarming is the fact that incidents covered by the media represent only a mere fraction of all incidents. McDonald’s workers are regularly subject to verbal abuse, threats of physical violence, and other forms of harassment that are rarely reported to authorities, and therefore not covered by news media. In Chicago, for example, one store logged 1,256 calls to 911 in the last three years, but the media only reported two incidents during the same period.

Gun violence is especially pervasive at McDonald’s stores. Of 721 media-covered instances, guns were involved in 72 percent. Also of note, violent incidents are 145 percent more likely to occur between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. than in the morning or afternoon. Late-night crime may be associated with McDonald’s extended hours — the longest in all fast-food — to improve customer convenience.

All McDonald’s workers have a legal and moral right to a safe workplace. No matter where you work, you have the right to come home safely at the end of the day. Whether you work in a sawmill, meatpacking plant, or a fast-food restaurant the law creates an obligation for companies to protect you.  No worker should have to sacrifice their life or health for a paycheck.

McDonald’s, the largest fast-food company in the U.S. and the second-largest private employer overall, must take workplace violence seriously as a real hazard for its employees. It is not just “part of the job.”

It is not good enough to just examine an incident after it happens and assure charges are brought by the police. The key to address any workplace hazard, including violence, is to put policies and procedures into place now that can mitigate and prevent future instances.

McDonald’s has a responsibility to proactively prevent serious hazards, not just wait until a worker is almost killed or injured. We know why these attacks happen:  Late hours with skeleton crews to a lack of security system to a lack of training, and we know how to mitigate and prevent them.

Workers at McDonald’s need mandatory, effective training on violence prevention, panic buttons that are accessible to all workers, drop safes and safer drive-thru windows.

McDonald’s depends on its image of being customer-friendly, America’s favorite burger joint. It has the resources to follow through on systems-wide change to protect its workers — but so far, it has failed. The Golden Arches needs to show it cares about its workers, who help the company bring in $6 billion in yearly profits, as it cares about its bottom line.

By Deborah Berkowitz

Deborah Berkowitz is the former chief of staff at the Occupational Saftey and Health Administration and director of the National Employment Law Project’s Worker Health & Safety Program

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