Women of color working for low wages at McDonald’s restaurants across the United States have bravely spoken out about sexual harassment on the job, and now they are asking federal investigators to conduct a sweeping investigation into the global restaurant chain in an effort to change the fast-food industry.
Cooks and cashiers from McDonald’s franchises in nine major cities have filed 10 charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that they were sexually harassed by fellow employees and managers at work, according to Fight for $15, a movement of low-wage workers backed by unions. The EEOC is the federal agency that enforces laws prohibiting workplace discrimination.
The workers and their attorneys announced the charges outside the new McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Chicago on Tuesday, just days ahead of the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting. All of three workers who spoke during the press conference said they make between $8 and $8.50 an hour, far below what is considered a living wage in most major US cities.
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“I am here to tell you that this company has a sexual harassment problem,” said Kimberley Lawson, a McDonald’s worker in Kansas City, Missouri. “Working at McDonald’s is hard enough already. I only make $8.25 an hour, and it’s hard to find stable housing for me and my daughter.”
In comparison, the living wage required for a working mother with one child to comfortably meet their basic needs in Kansas City is about $24 an hour, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator.
Lawson said one of her managers repeatedly made unwanted sexual comments about her appearance, and she initially felt there was little she could do about it besides try to rearrange her schedule. Another coworker repeatedly touched her inappropriately and brought her unwanted gifts, but nothing was done after she complained to a manager.
“I felt trapped at the time,” Lawson said.
Lawson is not alone. Several women filing charges with the EEOC said their attempts to alert management to sexual harassment went nowhere. One worker did not report that her coworker attempted to sexually assault her in the bathroom because her first complaint was not take seriously.
Adriana Alvarez, a McDonald’s worker in Chicago who organizes with Fight for $15, said the #MeToo movement may have “changed things for actresses in Hollywood,” but not for workers at McDonald’s.
“When workers alerted management, they were all too often brushed off, mocked and in some cases, faced retaliation,” Alvarez said.
Women in any workplace face stigma and the fear of retaliation when reporting sexual harassment, but advocates say the low pay scale at McDonald’s makes workers particularly vulnerable. With so little income to support themselves and their families, workers may not report sexual harassment to management — or confront the managers who harass them — out of fear of losing hours of work or even their jobs.
“For a lot of women, silence seems like the only option,” said Sharyn Tejani, executive director of the TIME’S Up Legal Defense Fund, which defrays legal costs for women challenging sexual harassment at work. “They are not able to walk away from the harassment because they need the job.”
Sexual harassment is widespread in the fast-food industry. A 2016 study found that 2 in 5 women working in fast food reported unwanted sexual behaviors on the job, including 28 percent who experienced multiple incidents of harassment. An alarming 42 percent of those who reported unwanted sexual behavior felt they had to accept it because they could not afford to lose their job, including 47 percent of Latinas.
“Any undocumented workers may fear deportation if they speak out,” said Sally Abrahamson, one of the attorneys working on the women’s cases. “Other employees might be afraid that they will not be believed, or will be ridiculed.”
Fight for $15 had already filed a series of sexual harassment charges against McDonald’s in 2016, and while some of those have been resolved, attorneys now want the EEOC to consolidate the remaining charges with those filed this week into a broad investigation of harassment across the cheeseburger empire. They hope the charges will pressure the company to enforce its “zero-tolerance” sexual harassment policy and become an industry leader in sexual harassment prevention.
“We want this treated as a systemic investigation,” Abrahamson said.
The charges come in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that upheld employment contracts with provisions that prevent workers from filing class-action lawsuits against their bosses over wage theft, sexual harassment and other disputes. Instead, employees must resolve their grievances in individual arbitration proceedings, a process that labor advocates say obscures patterns of discrimination and isolates workers.
An estimated 25 million workers have agreed to such “mandatory” or “forced” arbitration, and the details are often hidden in the paperwork that comes along with signing up for a job. Attorneys for the women filing complaints against McDonald’s said they are still working to determine whether their clients signed mandatory arbitration agreements, although the Supreme Court’s ruling does not prevent them from filing charges with a federal agency like the EEOC.
To fix the sexual harassment problem at McDonald’s, Fight for $15 is demanding the company train managers and employees to enforce the company’s zero-tolerance policy and develop a safe and effective method for workers to report harassment.
Truthout asked the McDonald’s media team for details of any efforts to bolster sexual harassment prevention, and whether the company would commit to raising wages for its restaurant workers because so many women say they don’t report sexual harassment out of fear of losing income. McDonald’s did not respond to any of these questions specifically, but did send along this statement from spokesperson Terri Hickey:
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.
Attorney Eve Cervantez said both the McDonald’s corporation and individual franchise owners were named in the charges filed with federal investigators. She urged the company to “step forward” to be part of the solution. In the meantime, McDonald’s workers who experience sexual harassment on the job can call a Fight for $15 hotline at (844) 384-4495 to have their reports reviewed by attorneys.