Ill. McDonald's Workers Say Safety Concerns Persist At Work

By Lauraann Wood
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Law360 (June 4, 2020, 10:16 PM EDT) -- Two McDonald's employees testified Thursday that inadequate information and a lack of physical distancing are behind their bid to have an Illinois state judge order the fast-food giant to better protect them amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

During a full-day preliminary injunction hearing that will continue next week, Maria Villasenor and Ryan Freeman, who work at different McDonald's restaurants in Chicago, testified that workers often come in close contact with one another despite the pandemic and that the company didn't provide them enough information regarding how to stay safe in the workplace. 

Five McDonald's workers, including Villasenor and Freeman, and four of their live-in family members alleged in their proposed class action that their employers mismanaged coronavirus safety protocols in four Chicago restaurants, causing unsafe conditions and a "public nuisance" that could endanger public health. They're asking the court to compel McDonald's to implement safety policies, require both customers and workers to wear masks and to supply adequate personal protective equipment.

Cook County Circuit Judge Eve Reilly refused to let the burger chain escape its employees' suit on Wednesday, rejecting the company's argument that state and local health departments would be better suited to address its claims.

Villasenor went on a safety strike between April 23 and May 13 but has since returned to work. She testified through an interpreter that although the restaurant currently has signage posted encouraging space between workers, her managers haven't discussed them with her. She also said her concerns are ongoing, as co-workers still aren't always maintaining a safe distance from one another and fail to properly wear face protective face masks.

Johnathan Bunge of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP, representing McDonald's Corp., showed Villasenor a photo of signs management posted above her restaurant's time clock to challenge her inadequate information claim. She testified that while she didn't read the sign outlining questions about the coronavirus, she did read the sign next to it telling workers what to do "if their stomach hurts or that."

Villasenor also testified that although her name appears on a May 9 letter stating she'd return to work in an acknowledgment that McDonald's was providing necessary personal protective equipment, her union coordinator drafted the document and "all I did was sign it." Aside from any safety improvements made at her restaurant, Villasenor was also motivated to return to work because of her need for money, she testified.

Freeman said during the hearing that he hasn't worked since May 16 because he learned someone at his South Side restaurant location had been diagnosed with COVID-19. He testified that he learned about the infection from a manager who told him not to report for his shift, but no one from the store has since contacted him and told him about the possibility that he'd been exposed to the virus.

Freeman also disagreed with assertions from Ronald Balfour of SmithAmundsen LLC, who represents property owner Lexi Management LLC, that he hadn't raised any concerns over workplace safety until he learned of a positive case among his co-workers. He said he raised his concerns over the restaurant's lack of face masks "about two weeks into the pandemic," but agreed that the restaurant currently has a sufficient amount of masks.

However, he said he wouldn't know about whether management at his location has posted any signs encouraging adequate distance and hand-washing among employees because he hasn't returned to work.

Proceedings over the workers' request for a preliminary injunction will resume Wednesday, June 10.

The unsafe practices allegedly include workers being forced to work in close quarters with colleagues and customers who might be asymptomatic carriers, having to reuse dirty masks or gloves if they were provided with such protective gear at all, and being directed to stay mum if workers were absent or suspected of being sick.

Besides a lack of safety equipment, the workers claimed the stores where they work didn't provide hand sanitizer and didn't offer safety training to employees. In some instances, workers were accused of stealing gloves if they asked for new ones and managers directed them to not talk about colleagues who were infected or who were absent, according to the suit.

The workers are represented by David P. Dean, Daniel M. Rosenthal, Ryan E. Griffin and Michael P. Ellement of James & Hoffman PC and Barry M. Bennett, Stephen A. Yokich and Elizabeth L. Rowe of Dowd Bloch Bennett Cervone Auerbach & Yokich.

McDonald's is represented by Jonathan Bunge and Daniel Lombard of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP.

Lexi Management LLC is represented by Ronald Balfour of SmithAmundsen LLC.

The case is Massey et al. v. McDonald's Corp. et al., case number 2020-CH-04247, in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois.

--Additional reporting by Celeste Bott and Vin Gurrieri. Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.

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