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What the Hell Is Going on Behind the Scenes at McDonald’s?

From the race to create a better chicken sandwich to CEO shakeups and Impossible Burgers, here’s all the chaos happening in the shadow of the golden arches

The McDonald’s golden arches glow yellow against a pink and purple sky at sunset. Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

McDonald’s has recently faced a slew of controversies and issues challenging its status as the world’s most popular fast-food chain. From changing tastes and trends to various legal battles, it seems the fast-food giant is getting bad press from all sides. For your convenience, much like a drive-thru or a cheaply priced combo meal, here is a brief explainer on what exactly is going down.

McDonald’s was slow to adopt plant-based meat

While the rest of the fast-food chains have followed Burger King’s lead and jumped on the “meatless meat” bandwagon, McDonald’s is taking its time despite public demand for meat-free alternatives. Finally, news came last fall that the company was testing a “P.L.T.” (plant, lettuce, tomato) sandwich made with a Beyond Meat patty, though the sandwich is only available in Ontario, while McDonald’s assesses whether it merits a larger, multi-national rollout.

If McDonald’s ultimately decides to add a plant-based option to the menu, it could still face challenges when it comes to supply. Impossible Meat, creator of the wildly popular Impossible Burger, experienced a supply shortage last spring, partially because of the success of Burger King’s Impossible Whopper. While competitor Beyond Meat says it could meet McDonald’s global demand, it would still need to work on “timing” to make the roll-out successful.

For now, McDonald’s isn’t part of the meatless meat revolution, and vegetarians have to stick to fries and McFlurries — neither trendy nor sources of plant-based protein.

McDonald’s chicken sandwich woes

McDonald’s just can’t seem to get a chicken sandwich to go viral, and no one within its network is happy about it. Franchisees have called for developing a chicken sandwich to be a top priority as they compete with the ever-growing popularity of Popeyes and Chick-fil-A. So far, attempts like the spicy BBQ chicken sandwich and the Crispy Chicken Sandwich have fallen flat.

The chain’s inability to create a viral sandwich, no matter how many times it brings the McRib back, reveals a bigger truth about its longevity. The past decade of backlash to foodie snobbery and the rise of lowbrow food appreciation has generally helped fast food’s image, so that now there is a certain cache to being seen with the Popeyes chicken sandwich, or admitting the best hangover cure is a Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme. But McDonald’s hasn’t quite managed to monetize the movement, largely because — as the Alpha and Omega of fast food — it has no regionality to fight over or underdog status to defend. That, and its reluctance to get experimental and jump on rising trends until they’re soundly established. McDonald’s wants a hit chicken sandwich? Bring the Indian Chicken Maharaja Mac here, you cowards.

CEO shakeups

In 2015, McDonald’s got rid of CEO Don Thompson after years of declining sales and misguided marketing approaches, replacing him with former chief brand officer Steve Easterbrook. At the time, employees hoped Easterbrook would make McDonald’s appear cooler to millennials and turn the company’s finances around. He did indeed implement a number of changes intended to modernize the chain and change the public’s associations, but he was fired for having a consensual sexual relationship with an employee, violating company policy. He was replaced by Chris Kempczinski, formerly the president of McDonald’s USA. Sources tell the Wall Street Journal that under Easterbrook, “some people perceived there was this macho, guys club. That has now progressed to a more open leadership” under Kempczinski, who is said to be addressing the party culture amid the upper echelons of McDonald’s Corp.

All those lawsuits

The bulk of the issues seem to come from the work culture at McDonald’s, as evidenced by multiple lawsuits recently filed against the company. One is a class action lawsuit that includes damning claims by former McDonald’s restaurant employee Jenna Reis, who alleges that she endured multiple instances of verbal and physical sexual harassment from her manager at a Michigan location. “This class action complaint alleges that the work culture at McDonald’s is toxic… It is McDonald’s institutional failure to address sexual harassment that allows it to flourish,” said attorney Eve Cervantez, who is representing multiple McDonald’s workers.

Separately, another former employee filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying while working at a Detroit store, she was harassed by a male coworker, and then penalized by management after she complained. Over two dozen women in 20 cities filed EEOC complaints against the company. McDonald’s says it has changed its training program, but workers argue that it’s not enough.

Another suit alleges similar behavior at the corporate level. Former senior executives Victoria Guster-Hines and Domineca Neal filed a lawsuit this month claiming both Easterbrook and Kempczinski were “overtly hostile” to black employees, purged black employees from executive ranks, and that they were subject to derogatory remarks and threats. The suit alleges McDonald’s “demoted or severed ties” with 31 out of 37 black officers, and that Easterbrook’s plans to change the company’s image included no longer advertising to black customers. “As plain as day, McDonald’s no longer valued African Americans as paying customers under the Golden Arches (where the Company was simultaneously working to re-image the look and feel of its restaurants to reflect a sleeker and more modern image),” says the suit.

New labor laws favor McDonald’s, and workers aren’t happy

Aside from harassment, an unfortunate mainstay of McDonald’s (and other fast food) employment is low pay. Last year, McDonald’s employees in the UK went on strike to demand guaranteed work hours, a £15 base wage, and earlier notice of shifts so people can make other plans in their free time. McDonald’s workers in the U.S. also organized a work stoppage last year, demanding a $15 an hour wage and the right to unionize, which McDonald’s won’t recognize because restaurant workers aren’t classified as employees of McDonald’s corp, but as employees of independently-owned franchises. Which leads to…

Labor organizing in fast food and filing grievances against fast-food chains has been a difficult proposition in America, partially because of shifting rules about “joint employment.” McDonald’s works by franchising its brand to independent owners, who are responsible for hiring, firing, and general management of that location, but at the same time are beholden to McDonald’s corporate management and pay McDonald’s a percentage of sales. If an employee has a complaint about treatment, it must then be decided how culpable McDonald’s the corporation is, or if it’s the sole responsibility of the franchise owner.

The Obama administration expanded the rules for “joint employment,” making McDonald’s more likely to be named jointly responsible in private lawsuits. But the Trump administration has been dedicated to rolling back those rules, with the Labor Department recently ruling to narrow the instances in which multiple businesses could be held responsible. According to Bloomberg Law, “By describing a simpler and more limited legal view than the Obama administration advanced, the Labor Department may allow employers to exert more control and influence over independent contractors without the risk of being tagged in federal court as a joint employer, which would put them on the hook for shorting workers’ paychecks.”

The ruling isn’t about McDonald’s specifically, but the company did recently avoid being named a joint employer in a class action lawsuit which alleged that employees were “denied overtime premiums, meal and rest breaks and other violations of the California Labor Code,” with the court ruling that McDonald’s had no control over the “day-to-day” aspects of work at the specific location. The Labor Department ruling makes similar court decisions more likely, and worker advocates say it allows corporations to avoid liability. “Too many employers use temp agencies and subcontractors to try to duck responsibility for wage theft,” the National Employment Law Project said in a statement. “Large corporations that outsource jobs will more easily get off the hook for workplace violations, while the typically smaller, poorly capitalized local businesses that provide the workers will bear all the liability.”

To say McDonald’s is in any real danger is a reach. It is still, again, the world’s most popular fast-food chain. But considering the above, along with increasing scrutiny of the fast-food industry’s disastrous effects on the environment, the company is certainly in the middle of a rough patch. In the PlayPlace of business, consider this the pee-soaked ball pit.

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