Last year, while working at a New Orleans McDonald’s, Tanya Harrel experienced sexual harassment twice in the span of a single month.
First it was the male coworker with whom she had thought she had a platonic friendship. That feeling ended we he started groping her against her will, often when she was washing dishes and there were no cameras keeping watch. “He actually came onto me very aggressively,” Harrel told Eater. “He would grab my breasts and other private parts.” She tried to escape the problem by avoiding him, but he kept repeating the behavior.
Harrel says she reported the harassment to two different managers, one male and one female. The male supervisor told her he thought she was giving the coworker “sex appeal,” egging him on. The female supervisor also didn’t believe her, pointing to the fact that Harrel and the harasser had exchanged phone numbers.
“I got rejected twice,” she says, which left her feeling “unprotected and unsafe.” And she wasn’t sure what to do next. “After that, I didn’t know who else to go to, who else to talk to about it.” She took a few days off of work, and by the time she came back, the coworker had quit.
Then, one day, a different male coworker pulled her into a bathroom at work. He pinned her to a wall, exposed his genitals, and tried to force her to have sex with him. This time, Harrel says she didn’t even bother trying reporting the incident, given what had happened earlier. Instead, she took a few weeks off. “I couldn’t deal with it physically, just going into the workplace,” she says. But those days away from work brought financial consequences. “I couldn’t afford to pay my phone bill, couldn’t afford my grandmom’s medicine. I had to really ask people for money because I was so scared to go back to work.”
Harrel is one of 10 McDonald’s employees, all women of color, across eight different cities in seven states who filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Tuesday alleging widespread sexual harassment at their jobs. The allegations include being groped, propositioned, and even sexually assaulted at work. When any of them reported what had happened to a manager, they say they were rebuffed. Some allege they were retaliated against; a few say they lost their jobs.
“When sexual harassment is not addressed in the workplace,” Harrel said on a call with media on Tuesday, “it sends workers a message that it’s okay for our bodies to be violated… It’s okay for our self-respect to be shattered.”
“I am a person, I am a woman,” she said. “I matter.”
The McDonald’s charges represent the first step in taking legal action against harassment — before any lawsuits can move forward, victims first have to ask the EEOC to investigate, which, if it takes the cases on, will look into the matter and either crack down on McDonald’s itself, allow the women to sue on their own, or deem that there is no foundation to their claims. Tuesday’s charges name not just franchise owners, but also McDonald’s corporate, even though the company argues that it has little control over its franchised locations. “
We would like McDonald’s corporation to step forward, investigate, and be part of a solution with respect to sexual harassment at all McDonald’s stores,” said Eve Cervantez, an attorney at Altshuler Berzon who’s representing some of the workers, said on Tuesday’s call with the media.
The goal is to get the EEOC to undertake a systemic investigation of McDonald’s across all of its locations, including looking into any unresolved claims from 15 sexual harassment charges that were filed against the company back in 2016. While the investigation is underway, complainants say they also want McDonald’s to enforce a zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment, as well as require mandatory training for all managers and staff. They also want the company to implement a clear and safe reporting process for those who experience harassment.
When employee Kimberly Lawson started her job, “there was no mention of sexual harassment training, no mention of sexual harassment policies, and no mention of a phone number to call if we experienced sexual harassment,” she says. Last fall, Lawson’s manager at a McDonald’s in Kansas City, MO repeatedly made sexual comments to her; given that he was a manager, she felt she had no choice but to tolerate his behavior. “I felt trapped,” she says. She tried to change her schedule to avoid him. But another coworker has also been harassing her — staring at her, standing uncomfortably close to her, brushing up against her, and even touching her butt. She reported his behavior to the general manager but says nothing was done about it. “McDonald’s, a multi-billion-dollar company,” she says, “does not seem to care.”
McDonald’s is hardly an outlier: Fast food has a big sexual harassment problem. A 2016 survey of women who worked in non-managerial positions in fast food found that 40 percent had experienced unwanted sexual behavior at work, including sexual remarks and unwanted touching, while 2 percent said they had been sexually assaulted or raped on the job. In just the past six months, the EEOC has launched three sexual harassment suits against fast-food companies, while two others have settled with the agency for tens of thousands of dollars. And according to EEOC, the industry is rife with the risk factors for harassment: a young workforce that may not be aware of its responsibilities or rights, close quarters, fast-paced work, scant HR protocols for addressing abuse, and power imbalances experienced by low-wage employees who are often people of color and/or immigrants who need their jobs to survive financially.
“We believe that it’s time for fast-food companies to start hearing these women’s voices and help them end sex harassment,” Cervantez says. “If it chooses to do so, McDonald’s has the capacity to make real changes in the workplace.” After all, the lawyers and employees argued, if McDonald’s — America’s largest fast-food chain and one of the country’s biggest employers (with 375,000 employees in 2017) — changes its practices, perhaps it will ripple outward to other chains. “We think change in fast food starts with McDonald’s agreeing to make changes.”
“McDonald’s has incredible influence, and if they choose to they can be a force for good,” Harrel says. “So today we’re taking a stand and demanding that McDonald’s be held accountable.”
The charges are a collaboration between the Fight for $15, a labor-backed movement demanding a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union, and the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. The fund was launched as part of Hollywood’s Time’s Up movement in the fallout from #MeToo as a way for celebrities to devote resources to helping women of lesser means who experience sexual harassment. “The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund is proud to stand with these women who have decided to come forward at great risk,” Sharyn Tejani, executive director of the fund, said on Tuesday’s media call. “We will… keep demanding accountability from companies like McDonald’s.”
More charges may soon follow. “Those filings are the beginning of our strategy,” Sally Abrahamson, an attorney at Outten Golden representing some of the workers, said on the media call. “We hope to talk to more McDonald’s workers.” The lawyers are encouraging any other employees who have experienced sexual harassment to get in touch with them and be included in the legal action. “No one should have to experience what I experienced,” Lawson says.
When asked for a comment on the allegations, Terri Hickey, a spokesperson for McDonald’s Corporation, said, “At McDonald’s Corporation, we are and have been committed to a culture that fosters the respectful treatment of everyone. There is no place for harassment and discrimination of any kind in our workplace. McDonald’s Corporation takes allegations of sexual harassment very seriously and are confident our independent franchisees who own and operate approximately 90 percent of our 14,000 U.S. restaurants will do the same.”
The Fight for $15 isn’t waiting for McDonald’s, though. It’s launching its own hotline that employees at McDonald’s and other fast-food companies can call when they get harassed. They’ll be connected with legal help for their cases, some of which will be funded by the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.
When Breauna Morrow reported a coworker who has making graphic comments about her body to a supervisor in her St. Louis McDonald’s, she says she was told, “You will never win that battle.”
“We’ll see about that,” Abrahamson said.