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A McDonald’s Employee Reported Unsanitary Conditions. Her Coworkers Retaliated With Harassment.

Nakeyla Hills told regional managers about black mold in the ice machines and the unsafe behavior of her colleagues. Afterward, she says coworkers retaliated by groping her and calling her the N-word.

A brown tray full of used and crumpled McDonald’s wrappers and cups is left on a window-facing counter top with a diner obscured in the background. Sorbis/Shutterstock

McDonald’s is facing a lawsuit alleging that at one of its New Jersey locations, conditions were so unsanitary that an employee was prompted to make multiple reports. But rather than taking steps to make the conditions safer for customers and employees, the legal complaint says, the employee was retaliated against and severely harassed.

Nakeyla Hills was hired by a McDonald’s in Farmingdale at the start of 2018 as a clerk, which meant she had a number of roles — running the cash register, taking orders, cooking food, and working the drive-thru. Almost immediately after she started working, however, she says that she started seeing what seemed like unsafe and unsanitary conditions in the restaurant.

In her complaint, Hills alleges that she saw coworkers and managers serve food to customers that had been on the floor, that they had thrown on the ceiling and walls, and that they had rubbed on themselves. She also claims employees refused to wash their hands after using the bathroom, touching themselves, or sneezing, and that they sat on fresh beef before it was cooked. She further alleges they didn’t clean out the black mold accumulating in the ice machine, and on top of that put cleaning products in the ice machine, and food products like bacon and pickles in soap dispensers.

A number of people took part in these antics. It was “endemic to the workplace,” her attorney, Michael Willemin, a partner at law firm Wigdor LLP, said.

Some of the incidents put Hills in physical danger she claims. At one point she alleges that her coworkers intentionally failed to turn off the machine that made hot tea, which then shot out hot water and severely burned her. In another alleged incident, one of her coworkers placed an entire stick of butter in the toaster as a joke; when it was turned on later that evening, it set off a large fire. When Hills told a coworker to use the fire extinguisher and escorted everyone else out of the building, she alleges that the one who had put the butter in the toaster in the first place screamed at her, “I’ll kill you, n[-word]!”

Even her manager didn’t wash her hands, Hills claims. So she took it upon herself to say something, complaining about the conditions to a regional manager and making multiple reports to higher ups that included pictures. “She felt very strongly that she couldn’t stay silent when these unsanitary conditions were ongoing,” Willemin said. “It impacted people — customers who were eating food at McDonald’s. So certainly she felt that she needed to speak up about that.” But although she felt compelled to try to do something, it wasn’t easy. “It was absolutely difficult to speak up,” he said.

Even though the regional manager praised her for coming forward, nothing happened to remedy the situation. “McDonald’s was completely apathetic to the concerns that Ms. Hills was observing,” Willemin said.

Instead, Hills claims that she faced retaliation for trying to fix the problem. Her managers and coworkers allegedly began regularly calling her a “bitch” at work, while the brother of the man who set the toaster fire began calling her the n-word. Coworkers also allegedly called her a “psycho” and “crazy.”

She also alleges that as all of this was going on, one day a male coworker reached into her shirt pocket and groped her breast. When she told him not to touch her, her complaint says he responded by calling her a “bitch” and a “psycho.”

She again found the courage to speak up, reporting her harassment to managers. “She did feel really strongly that no person should be forced to be treated in that way,” Willemin said. “It was the only option she had.” But when she complained about the abuse to her managers, she was told to “not care” about what others said and to be less “aggressive” when making complaints. Reached for comment regarding Hill’s lawsuit, owner and operator Harry Chapman stated, “Our number one priority is always to ensure the health and safety of our employees and customers. As a locally-owned business, we take pride in protecting all our staff members, which includes operating a safe and clean restaurant and fostering a respectful work environment.”

Hills developed anxiety and depression. The anxiety led to hives, and she felt physically ill on her way into work every day. She was eventually forced to resign.

What Hills says she went through predates the coronavirus pandemic, but McDonald’s workers have protested unsafe working conditions both before and after the current crisis. Last year they filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as a lawsuit alleging that the company has failed to protect employees from violence at the hands of customers, an issue they have also staged strikes over. Since the pandemic exploded across the country this year, they’ve staged a series of strikes to protest what they say has been a lack of protection for their health, and some in Oakland, California filed a public health complaint.

Scores of employees have also come forward and said they were sexually harassed in McDonald’s restaurants. They’ve filed a series of lawsuits over the last four years and staged the country’s first-ever national strike to protest the abuse. A recent survey found that three-quarters of employees say they’ve experienced sexual harassment while at work.

In response McDonald’s has created a new sexual harassment training and changed its policies, although employees say the changes still don’t go far enough. It also says that it’s distributed ample personal protection equipment, including gloves and masks, and installed protective barriers, although employees joined a massive nationwide strike in July to demand better protection and pay.

The toll of the experience still lingers with Hills, however. “It continues to have a significant impact on her mental health and ability to even go about her day,” Willemin said. She has tried to find work since she left McDonald’s but hasn’t had much success. “It’s very difficult for her at this point to even live what we would consider what would be a normal life.”

Update: August 7, 2020, 3:35 p.m.: This article was updated to include comments from McDonald’s franchisee Harry Chapman.