Employee Rights in Florida and the McDonald’s Debacle

Everyone is talking about the video that went viral.  It shows a McDonald’s employee violently assaulted by an angry customer.  How did it start?  The customer was angry because he couldn’t find a straw.  Stupid, yes.  Instructive? Yes.  Some are making it out to be a racial issue.  It may be but I want to focus on the rights of the employee when she is verbally assaulted and then physically accosted.  As a result of the McDonald’s melee, 20-year-old Yasmine James has been placed on paid leave.  Before we delve into whether that was the right move, let’s remember Florida is an “at will” work state which means the employee or employer can terminate employment at any time for no reason (as long as it isn’t for illegal reasons).  Sadly, it turns out Ms. James doesn’t have a lot of legal rights in Florida concerning her employment with McDonald’s.  It’s not fair but it’s the law.  Now, perhaps her lawyer can make an argument that corresponds to federal employee protection laws but that is a stretch.  The federal provision that comes closest would be The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) is designed to ensure that employees’ work environments are safe and free from dangerous conditions.  When confronted by the unruly customer, Ms. James was clearly in a dangerous workplace environment but it would be difficult to argue that this constituted an OSHA violation.

And this is the state of affairs for most of Florida’s retail workers.  They are paid low wages with little room for advancement and are often subjected to irate or rude customers.  This is a constituency that is clearly in need of strong representation in Tallahassee and Washington DC.  Right now, their influence is minimal at best.  Laws are changed through influence.  Influence is often the result of money and the retail industry just doesn’t have what it takes to affect substantive change so that retail employees aren’t subject to verbal threats, poor working environments, and low wages.

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