McDonald's Workers In Virus Suit Say Safety Signs Ineffective

By Lauraann Wood
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Law360 (June 10, 2020, 11:25 PM EDT) -- Two Illinois McDonald's employees accusing the company of providing unlawfully subpar workplace COVID-19 protections testified Wednesday that they either haven't seen safety signage around their workplace, haven't fully read it or think it doesn't help them stay safe.

McDonald's employee Sujey Figueroa testified that she had seen signs since returning to work in late May. She said she only read part of one sign that encouraged employees to maintain a 6-foot distance between one another. She said she didn't read the entire sign, which also encouraged workers to wash their hands and wear gloves.

"I saw several of these announcements, but I only saw the space part of it," Figueroa testified through an interpreter. "I thought that that's what it was about."

Another employee, Truvon Turner, testified that he hasn't seen a sign describing face mask and disposable glove procedures at his workplace. He testified that that while he's seen signs at his location encouraging people to keep a distance from others, "there's no lines on the floor indicating where to stand.

"It's just saying ... 6 feet," Turner said. "It [doesn't] say exactly where to stand."

The workers' testimony came as McDonald's counsel, Jonathan Bunge of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP, cross-examined their assertions that managers at their respective Chicago locations haven't done enough to keep them safe as they continue to serve customers amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Figueroa returned to work May 25 following a month-long safety strike, and testified on direct examination that she didn't see many of the restaurant's posted face mask, glove and hand-washing directives until she came back. Turner, who testified that he experienced several COVID-19 symptoms in early May but tested negative for the illness, claimed that he has frequently seen his colleagues working within a few steps from one another and hasn't heard any of his managers explain what he should do if he starts feeling sick.

Cook County Circuit Judge Eve Reilly also heard from Peter Orris, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Public Health who chairs the university's occupational medicine department. The department has consulted with several corporations, unions and governmental agencies on preventing the spread of COVID-19, largely in the workplace context, Orris said.

Orris testified that while safety training at work is a good approach to preventing virus spread, "accidents and spread in the workplace occurs when people aren't thinking about the training they got several hours before."

"You have to find ways ... where people are working to remind them, 'Use the hand sanitizer, wash your hands," Orris testified. "It's not the easiest thing in the world because we all tend to disregard signs that we've seen five or six times and we don't reread them, so how you develop that is difficult."

The hearing was a continuance of proceedings that began last week over whether McDonald's and certain franchisees should be ordered, by way of preliminary injunction, to provide more adequate information and better coronavirus protection gear at work. The proceeding is set to continue, but Law360 could not determine when parties will return before Judge Reilly by the time of publishing.

Figueroa and Turner are two of five McDonald's employees who, along with some of their family members, launched a proposed class action on May 19 claiming their employers mismanaged safety protocols in four Chicago restaurants, causing unsafe conditions and a "public nuisance" that could endanger public health. Preliminary injunction proceedings began the day after Judge Reilly rejected McDonald's argument that that governmental agencies, including the state and local departments of health, had primary jurisdiction to hear the workers' claims.

The lawsuit claims the proposed class has experienced unsafe practices that 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, according to the suit.

McDonald's has said the allegations in the lawsuit are inaccurate and not representative of what's really happening in McDonald's 14,000 nationwide locations. The company has defended its response to the pandemic, saying that it's distributed more than 100 million masks to workers and set forth standards that require specific safety measures and protective equipment at its restaurants.

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.

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 Michael Watanabe.

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