The Fight for $15 Is Now Fighting Against Sexual Harassment Too
A new battlefront opened this week in the long-running fight to secure better pay and better working conditions for the more than 3.5 million fast-food workers in America. Workers from across the country have slapped McDonald’s, the nation’s largest fast-food chain, with 15 separate complaints of sexual harassment. The claims, all of which were filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, detail an obnoxious and repugnant level of abuse, typically directed at women working as cooks or cashiers and perpetrated by men in supervisory positions. They provide vivid examples of the type of harassment that, according to the results of a poll also released this week, it seems far too many women in the industry face.
In the federal claims filed against McDonald’s this week, the group of women allege a litany of forms of sexual harassment, ranging from verbal taunts to unwanted physical advances. One employee said her supervisor harassed her on a daily basis, including grabbing her and rubbing his genitals against her. Another said she faced similar abuse and that her supervisor sent her a text message offering to pay $1,000 for oral sex. Both women, as well as others who filed complaints, maintained that when they tried to report their supervisors’ behavior to a store manager or higher authority—including McDonald’s corporate office—either nothing was done or, even worse, the woman was retaliated against.
“McDonald’s monitors everything we do—from how fast the drive-thru is moving to how we fold our customers’ bags,” Cycei Monae, one of the complainants, who used to work at a McDonald’s in Flint, Michigan, said in a statement released by the worker advocacy group Fight for $15. “Yet when I filed a complaint against my shift manager for regularly sexually harassing me—which included him showing me a photo of his genitals—McDonald’s had no response.” Monae quit her job to avoid further abuse. “I really needed that job and money, and I considered remaining silent,” she said. “But I believed McDonald’s had my back and would be horrified by the way I was treated. I was wrong.”
In an emailed statement provided to Bloomberg News, a spokesperson said the company is reviewing the complaints but that “there is no place for harassment and discrimination of any kind in McDonald’s restaurants or in any workplace. We take any concerns seriously.”
Yet if recent battles are any indication, the company is going to fight tooth and nail to dodge any responsibility for the women’s claims. Not simply because that’s de rigueur for most major corporations facing such allegations but specifically because McDonald’s has racked up enormous legal bills—and tied up the federal regulatory system for the past few years—arguing that it can’t possibly be held accountable for what goes on at the stores its franchisees operate. Worker advocates claim that is far from the case and point to the kind of micromanagement of restaurant employees that Monae’s statement details as proof. In 2014, the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling that more or less agreed with groups like Fight for $15 and said that the company is a joint employer of franchise workers.
It would be a mistake to think that this kind of abhorrent sexual harassment is limited to these 15 women—or limited to McDonald’s. A new poll sponsored by a coalition of women’s advocacy groups finds a staggering 40 percent of female fast-food workers have experienced sexual harassment on the job, a rate that is 60 percent higher than for women in the American workforce at large. One in five who said they were assulted reported the harassment only to suffer some sort of retaliation, such as having her hours cut or being fired. One in eight women working on the front lines of the industry says she faces “extensive” sexual harassment but feels “trapped and unable to leave.”
It’s clearly an epidemic that workers’ rights advocates hope to counter by targeting the nation’s biggest burger chain. Kendall Fells, organizing director of Fight for $15, said in a statement, “As the country’s second-largest employer, McDonald’s has a responsibility to set standards in both the fast-food industry and the economy overall.”