Union Says McDonald's Axed Worker Who Sought Safety Gear

By Kevin Stawicki
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Law360 (July 22, 2020, 8:19 PM EDT) -- McDonald's Corp. has violated federal labor law by firing a worker for organizing strikes at the fast-food chain over subpar workplace protections during the coronavirus pandemic such as a lack of soap and gloves, according to a charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board.

The charge, filed Tuesday by the Service Employees International Union, alleges McDonald's violated the National Labor Relations Act by firing Maria Ruiz in retaliation for organizing three strikes over safety concerns at the San Jose, California, restaurant where she worked.

In addition to McDonald's failure to provide basic safety equipment like gloves, masks and other supplies, the fast-food restaurant failed to enforce social distancing protocol in violation of federal guidelines, the NLRB charge says.

When Ruiz raised those concerns with management and organized the strikes, McDonald's promptly fired her, according to the agency charge.

"McDonald's asserted a pretextual reason for discharging Ms. Ruiz, but in reality fired her for her advocacy for workers' safety and her organizing for better working conditions and union representation," the charge said.

Ruiz was also informed by another colleague that managers had a "blacklist of union supporters, whom they call 'mitoteros' (which roughly translates to 'gossips/trouble-makers') and whom management intends to fire," the charge said.

"Ruiz worked for McDonald's for sixteen years without any problems," SEIU Associate General Counsel Johnda Bentley said in an email to Law360. "It was only after she started speaking up publicly and organizing strikes with her coworkers over serious safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic that she was terminated for pretextual reasons."

Bentley said Ruiz's coworkers went on strike Wednesday to demand that she be rehired immediately.

A spokesperson for McDonald's USA said in an email Wednesday that the claims are "untrue and cannot be substantiated."

"The employee was terminated after a thorough review found that she falsely reported a safety violation, created and provided false evidence, and lied during the investigation," the spokesperson said.

Tuesday's charge is the latest fallout over the fast-food chain's response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

A COVID-19 outbreak at a McDonald's in Oakland, California, spawned a public nuisance lawsuit in June alleging the franchise's owners forced highly contagious workers who had contracted the virus to keep working and gave workers face masks made from dog diapers.

McDonald's has maintained that the allegations in that lawsuit are inaccurate and not representative of what's happening in McDonald's 14,000 nationwide locations.

In a proposed class action filed in Illinois state court filed in May, workers at several Chicago-area McDonald's restaurants claimed that the company provided unlawfully subpar workplace COVID-19 protections. McDonald's said it was moving toward settling the case in late May, insisting that the safety protocol at issue was already in place in all of its locations across the country. 

--Additional reporting by Vin Gurrieri, Celeste Bott and Lauraann Wood. Editing by Abbie Sarfo.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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