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McDonald's worker safety complaints challenge franchise protections

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Health and safety complaints lodged against McDonald's Corp.-owned and franchised restaurants are the latest challenges to the longstanding business model employed by restaurant chains, experts say.

The complaints against nine company-owned McDonald's and 19 that are franchised were filed earlier this week with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The complaints allege an array of unsafe practices, such as forcing workers to clean deep fryers that were still hot and instructing employers who had suffered burns to apply condiments to the wounds.

The complaints coincided with the release of a survey commissioned by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a labor organization representing fast-food workers. Washington-based Hart Research Associates conducted the survey of 1,426 fast food workers, finding that 87% have suffered an injury on the job during the past year.

In an emailed statement, a McDonald's Corp. spokeswoman said the company would review the complaints, but added they are “part of a larger strategy orchestrated by activists targeting our brand and designed to generate media coverage.”

Though it's unclear whether the employees filed workers compensation claims, Stephen T. Parascandola, a partner at law firm Smith, Anderson, Blount, Dorsett, Mitchell & Jernigan L.L.P. in Raleigh, North Carolina, said the workers “may believe … the OSHA penalties may end up costing the franchisees and/or corporate McDonald's more than workers comp benefits or any increased premiums that could come from viable claims.”

He also said more robust OSHA whistleblower protections may encourage workers to file complaints.

Stewart Manela, a partner in the labor, employment and OSHA groups at Arent Fox L.L.P. in Washington, said the franchise model typically insulates the corporate parent from labor and safety complaints.

“In the typical franchise situation, the franchisor does not have a day-to-day involvement in the employment relations or the operation of the franchise, and to that extent is not responsible for a wide range of employment-related matters, including workers compensation or safety and health,” Mr. Manela said.

Nonetheless, the National Labor Relations Board issued complaints in December naming McDonald's as a “joint employer” of workers at its franchisees, alleging the company violated employees' rights by taking actions against them for engaging in activities to improve their wages and working conditions.

Barry E. Parsons, Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based food safety and retail operations expert at consulting firm Robson Forensic Inc., said the most common restaurant worker safety risks can largely be mitigated through better training and improved processes.

For example, 46% of burn victims identified in the labor organization's survey said they felt manager pressure to work more quickly than is safe.

“It's a rush business,” Mr. Parsons said. “When people feel they don't have enough time to perform a task correctly, they end up hurting themselves.”

OSHA is currently conducting an investigation of the complaints and has up to six months to complete its investigation and decide if penalties against McDonald's and the franchisees are warranted.