McDonald’s is facing a whistleblower lawsuit from a former worker, who claims she was fired after protesting the fast-food giant’s safety policies during the pandemic.
On Friday, Maria E. Ruiz Bonilla filed the whistleblower retaliation suit against McDonald’s in the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Santa Clara.
Ruiz had worked for McDonald’s in San Jose, California for more than 16 years when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. Despite being a diabetic, Ruiz said she wasn’t provided personal protective gear or even allowed to wear a mask on the job.
“We didn’t have sanitizer, masks, gloves,” Ruiz told Business Insider through a translator. “We didn’t even have Clorox, sometimes, to clean and disinfect the store. I was in panic.”
McDonald’s was among the many chains that did not provide workers with personal protective equipment at the beginning of the pandemic, and originally discouraged employees from wearing masks in accordance with the CDC’s guidance at the time. Dozens of fast-food workers told Business Insider in March that they were terrified to go to work, as many wondered how they could avoid getting sick and if they would be able to financially support their families.
But Ruiz went further than most when it came to speaking out about safety concerns. She started protesting, leading a series of walkouts in late March and early April, and filed complaints with health officials.
“I was afraid, of course. I was thinking about losing my job,” Ruiz said. “But, at the same time, my fear of getting sick with COVID and dying was bigger.”
Ruiz said that her work hours were cut in April, after she began protesting and speaking to the press. She was suspended in mid-July and fired later the same month, according to the complaint.
“These allegations are untrue and cannot be substantiated,” McDonald’s said in a statement to Business Insider. “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.”
McDonald’s said that, despite national shortages, the company worked to provide masks to employees, and that masks and gloves arrived at the San Jose location on April 12.
Ruiz was involved in high-profile protests against McDonald’s during the pandemic
When Ruiz began protesting against McDonald’s, she told media outlets that her location lacked masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and hand soap. Working with the Service Employees International Union-backed Fight for $15 movement, she also called for McDonald’s to provide paid sick leave for all workers.
Ruiz and other workers filed complaints with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal-OSHA), the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, and the Labor Workforce Development Agency (LWDA).
“On April 16, the local Department of Health conducted a review at the restaurant and found no major or minor violations — the DOH’s report concluded there was ample hand sanitizer and soap available, and that instructions on social distancing were prevalent and being followed by crew,” McDonald’s said in a statement.
According to Friday’s complaint, McDonald’s managers responded to Ruiz and other employees who reported safety concerns by “rudely and yelling at them,” as well as disciplining them disproportionately.
Soon after Ruiz was fired in July, the Service Employees International Union filed a complaint on her behalf with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that she faced illegal retaliation for her workplace activism.
As part of the lawsuit filed on Friday, Ruiz is seeking to be reinstated in her position at McDonald’s, as well as given back pay and compensation for damages.
“We were called essential workers, but this is the way that they treat the essential workers?” Ruiz asked.
Companies facing repercussion for their pandemic policies
Attorneys told Business Insider in April that it would be difficult for workers to win against employers in court if they tried to sue after catching COVID-19 on the job.
“The biggest hurdle infected employees will face if they seek compensation from an employer will be proving where they contracted the virus,” attorney James Biscone said. “Was it at work? On the way home? On the subway or bus?”
Workers recently told Business Insider’s Catherine LeClair and Áine Cain that they feel as if they have been deserted by organizations like OSHA intended to enforce workplace safety during the pandemic. Republicans have pushed to give businesses a “liability shield” to protect employers from lawsuits related to the coronavirus, as part of the proposed SAFE TO WORK Act.
Recently, there has been an uptick of litigation and action on the part of health officials. While OSHA issued few COVID-related citations early in the pandemic, the administration has recently fined Amazon and meat-processing giants JBS and Smithfield over safety violations. Reuters reports “take home” lawsuits, filed by people sickened by family members who were infected at work, could cost businesses up to $21 billion, citing risk analytics firm Praedicat.
Ruiz’s case highlights that pandemic-related lawsuits will not be limited to workers who caught COVID-19 at work. Law firm Fisher Phillips reports that there has been a surge in whistleblower lawsuits due to the pandemic, as employees report safety violations such as a lack of personal protective equipment and social distancing failures. According to the firm, 136 of the 674 federal employment-related lawsuits since March 2020 were related to whistleblower allegations.
This blog originally appeared at Business Insider on October 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kate Taylor is a correspondent for Business Insider, covering restaurants, food, beverage, and retail. Companies that she covers include McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Chick-fil-A. Kate previously covered food and franchises for Entrepreneur. Find her on Twitter at @Kate_H_Taylor.