Lois Jones started at McDonald’s when she was in her 20s. It was her first job. “I loved working for McDonald’s,” she said. “Don’t make no mistakes about it. I can take some food and turn it into a Sunday dinner. As long as I’m in the kitchen, I’m happy.”
But two decades later, all that changed. A male coworker at her North Carolina location walked up behind her one day and started to rub his crotch against her. “It caught me by surprise,” she said. “To be honest, I didn’t even think people like that even existed…. It was just so freaky, nasty, and scary.”
It was the start of her recurring sexual harassment. Nearly every time the coworker saw her, he made inappropriate comments like telling her she had a “big ass” and “You can’t wait until I put my tongue in your ass,” rubbed up against her, or grabbed her pants. One day as she was leaving the refrigerated room where meat and produce are stored, he tried to push her back in. When Jones fought back, he told her that she was “strong as hell” but that he could “pin me down in there,” according to a legal complaint she filed. She was able to escape. Later that year, he pulled his penis out of his pants and pressed it against her back. The same day, he pressed his face against her buttocks. “I felt like I was raped with my clothes on,” she told me.
Jones wasn’t the only woman the man harassed. She saw him doing the same things to other female coworkers on multiple occasions. At first, she didn’t say anything because she assumed her managers knew about his behavior and hadn’t bothered to address it. But eventually she told her shift manager. She was brushed off. “I complained several times about him, and they just threw up their hands,” she said. “They didn’t care.” Instead, her supervisors laughed and even implied she was lying. They also retaliated against her, she alleged; she stopped receiving overtime pay for extra hours, was treated more harshly, and had her requests for time off denied.
“Some days I didn’t even want to go to work just because I knew I had to work with him,” Jones said. At one point in our conversation, she had to stop talking because she started to cry. “I hate reliving it because it was so bad,” she said through the tears. “It hurts me. It hurts.”
Quitting wasn’t an option. “At the end of the day, I had two kids I had to feed,” she said. She stayed even after filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in early 2019. “It is hard for me to go to work because I still have to see my harasser,” she wrote in the complaint. Eventually, she left for a job at a different restaurant. Her harasser was still employed at McDonald’s. “After that, I don’t even eat McDonald’s no more,” she said. “I don’t feel like they deserve a dime from anybody. I just don’t understand why they feel they’re not accountable for what he did.”
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McDonald’s is one of the country’s most recognizable and popular brands. It is also one of the largest employers in the United States, with over 800,000 employees. Given this visibility and clout, it might be expected that McDonald’s would exercise a certain measure of corporate responsibility and public accountability if its employees are put in harm’s way. But that is not what has happened. Since 2015, scores of women have accused the company of fostering a workplace rife with sexual harassment and of turning its back when they came forward to report their treatment. They have filed dozens of legal complaints and even staged a historic nationwide strike over the issue. And yet a full-scale reckoning has not come to pass.
The area behind the counter at McDonald’s is cramped. It gets hot, especially in locations without air conditioning and particularly when employees are working the grills or making fries. The job can involve a lot of monotony, but the pace can turn on a dime. It’s crushing during mealtime rush hours, and the high turnover rate typical of fast-food jobs often leaves restaurants short-staffed, putting more pressure on the remaining workers. “It can be very stressful, and then all of a sudden it’s super calm and no one’s there,” said Emily Anibal, who worked at a location in Mason, Mich. “It comes in these waves.”
Despite the fast pace and intense pressure, many of the women I spoke with initially enjoyed working at McDonald’s. “It’s not really a boring, sit-down job,” said Delisha Rivers, who worked at a location in Kansas City, Mo. “You laugh and you talk with everyone that’s at work.” Katlyn Barber, who worked at Anibal’s restaurant, agreed. “When you’re working with the right people, obviously it can be fun.”
But for the women I spoke with, once the harassment started, their jobs became torture.
The sexual harassment these workers said they experienced was from many coworkers and managers at different locations in all parts of the country. The victims ranged from teenagers to women in their 40s. But their experiences have striking similarities, according to 24 legal complaints reviewed by The Nation. It’s not the case of one “bad apple general manager,” said Eve Cervantez, an attorney at Altshuler Berzon, a firm specializing in labor and employment law, who is representing the workers. “It’s a systemic problem.”
Most of the targeted workers experienced verbal abuse, in some cases starting on their very first day at work. Many were frequently told they were sexy; one woman’s manager kept calling her “mami chula” (hot mama). They were also subjected to overtly sexual come-ons—“I wonder what you taste like,” “Your boobs would look good when I’m screwing you,” “When are you going to let me get some?”—and descriptions of sex acts these men wanted to perform with them.
At one point, after a coworker at a McDonald’s in Sanford, Fla., asked Jamelia Fairley the age of her then-1-year-old daughter, he said, “How much would it be to fuck your daughter?” A male coworker who overheard the question laughed.
None of the women took these comments as compliments or jokes. Barbara Johnson, who worked at a location in St. Louis, is a rape survivor and found them “terrifying,” she said in a complaint filed with the EEOC.
For many, the verbal harassment escalated into physical assaults; for others, the harassment started with physical abuse. On her first shift working the grill at a McDonald’s in Gladwin, Mich., Jennifer Betz had her buttocks rubbed by a male coworker half a dozen times. Other women described similar experiences with coworkers who grabbed or pinched their buttocks; groped their breasts, hips, or groin; or touched their hair and shoulders. Numerous women described a male coworker coming up behind them and rubbing his groin against their buttocks or dry humping them. As Tanya Harrell, who worked at a McDonald’s in Gretna, La., described it in her charge, “I felt totally exposed, as if I did not have a skin or shell.”
While the space near the grills or behind the registers is tight, these women said, there was always enough room for workers to maneuver around one another without coming into physical contact. Instead, male coworkers used the cramped quarters as a pretext to abuse them.
Some of the incidents came dangerously close to rape. A male coworker forced Harrell into the men’s bathroom, pushed her into a stall, pinned her against a wall, dropped his pants, and took out his penis. She started to cry; he left only when a manager called for him. In Cincinnati, a male coworker followed Carole Stahle to her car after her shift, forced his way in, and began to kiss her and fondle her breasts, legs, and the rest of her body.
Some of the women were stalked. In her complaint, Ivelisse Rodriguez described how her shift manager in a Connecticut location texted her after work, sent her flowers, and spread rumors that they were sleeping together. Then he started to call her, sometimes as often as 20 times a day, and show up during her shifts when he wasn’t working to buy a coffee and watch her.
Women weren’t the only ones who were targeted. One man was harassed “virtually immediately” after he started working at a McDonald’s in Nebraska, according to his complaint. A male coworker repeatedly squeezed his chest, grabbed his buttocks, and said things like “Give daddy a kiss” and “You know you love me.” Other male coworkers joined in. One grabbed his penis and told him, “You got a big dick.” Another told him he would get more hours if he performed sexual favors.
Employees were harassed not just by coworkers and managers. The abuse also came from customers, including men “older than my dad,” said Ashley Reddick, who worked at a McDonald’s in Sanford, Fla. She described one who would sit in the restaurant all day, make explicit comments to her, and try to get her number. Another man followed her as she walked home. A woman in Illinois was subjected to a 10-minute rant from a customer about his penis size and what he would do to her sexually. “I will wait for you after your shift,” he told her, prompting her to rush home after work, afraid that he would attack her.
Many of these women told me their experience at McDonald’s was their first brush with workplace harassment and they were unsure how to respond. Katlyn Barber worked nearly every shift with a fellow swing manager who would dry hump her from behind, grab her buttocks with tongs, and make suggestive comments, like saying he wanted to “get with her” or have a threesome with her and other women. “I came from a very, very small town, so I hadn’t had a lot of experience,” she said. “It was kind of unknown territory. It never had happened before.”
Many women noticed McDonald’s didn’t appear to take sexual harassment as seriously as other workplace infractions. If Anibal wore black jeans to work instead of the approved work pants, she would get written up right away. One day she had her hair in a ponytail; her manager told her immediately that she had to put it in a braid. “It’s crazy to me they have so many rules about uniforms but they have almost no regulations about sexual harassment,” she said of her tenure there.
Preventive measures or even ones to ensure accountability when harassment took place have been “utterly lacking to an extent that just leaves me scratching my head,” said Gillian Thomas, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, which is also representing the plaintiffs—especially for “an employer with the limitless resources that McDonald’s has.”
In response to a request for comment, McDonald’s USA stated, “The McDonald’s System has a deep commitment to ensuring employees at corporate-owned and franchised restaurants have a safe and respectful work environment for everyone. We’ve demonstrated our continued commitment to this issue by consistently offering various Safe and Respectful Workplace Trainings.”
In response to pressure, last year the company announced a new sexual harassment training program that it would implement alongside workplace violence, bullying, and unconscious bias training in corporate-owned locations and that “is made available as a resource to franchisees,” according to a company spokesperson. It also said it has “enhanced” its policy on discrimination, harassment, and retaliation prevention and created a free hotline for employee concerns. But those changes are inadequate, advocates insisted. Thomas called the company’s recent changes “cosmetic.” Its new training videos, she and her cocounsel said, cover more than just sexual harassment—they also address topics like job safety and cleanliness—and aren’t tailored to the experience of harassment in a fast-food restaurant. Moreover, they’re required only at the corporate-owned locations; for McDonald’s many franchisees, they’re merely suggested for use. And, they noted, the workers have yet to be consulted in the process of crafting better policies.
“You don’t change behavior by putting a policy in a handbook and putting a poster on the wall and showing someone an hourlong video,” said Thomas. Cervantez said, “Every single step along the way needs to be improved, from the initial training and prevention to investigation and discipline and accountability.”
The inadequacy of the existing procedures for dealing with harassment was evident at the very start of their employment for these women. None of the ones I spoke with or who have filed complaints said they received training on what sexual harassment is or what to do when it happens.
A number of them were given a handbook to look at that had a section on sexual harassment, but some didn’t even get a copy to take home. While Anibal watched plenty of video and computer trainings about how to prepare food and keep it sanitary—how often to wash her hands, reminders to wear gloves—there was no such training about sexual harassment. She didn’t see any posters about it, either. So when it happened to her, she said, she had “no clue” what she should do about it.
Managers aren’t given training, either, according to Thomas and Cervantez. Barber was promoted from crew member to swing manager within a few months, and “there was no training not only on what to do if you are being sexually harassed but what to do if sexual harassment was reported to you,” she said. When she was harassed, she felt “clueless” about whether it was even harassment, let alone what to do about it. Fielding harassment complaints and responding to them appropriately is “just not considered part of the managers’ jobs,” Thomas said.
Accurate and useful training is particularly important, given the demographics of McDonald’s workers. Many are young; three of the women I spoke with were teenagers when they worked there. That’s typical for fast food. McDonald’s likes to call itself “America’s best first job.” An estimated one in eight workers in the United States have been employed there at some point, many while still in high school or just starting out in the workforce. But teenagers don’t necessarily know that sexual harassment is illegal or what to do about it. That can leave lasting scars as they move on to other jobs.
Brittany Hoyos began working as a cashier at a McDonald’s near her home in Arizona when she was 16. It was her first job, allowing her to pitch in with household finances. Working part-time while going to high school and being a cheerleader was a lot to juggle: She would wake up at 4 am to get to school, do cheerleading until 8 at night, and start her shift at 8:30, sometimes working until 2 in the morning. But sexual harassment made it all but impossible.
It started when her family’s car was repossessed and her parents couldn’t afford to get it back. At first Hoyos took Lyfts to work, but that became too expensive. So when an older manager started offering to give her rides home, she eventually accepted. They were on friendly terms in the beginning, but then he tried to kiss her, and “that’s when things had changed,” she told me.
The manager began making inappropriate comments—telling her he liked how she looked, asking about her boyfriend—touching her ponytail or neck, and purposely brushing up against her when he walked by. “It was intimidating,” she said. She had never experienced sexual harassment before. Struggling to put the experience into words, Hoyos said in a soft voice, “At first it felt like it was my fault.”
For Anibal, then 17, McDonald’s was a way to start saving up for college. She frequently worked the drive-through windows, which required her to wear a headset at all times to take orders and communicate with her coworkers. That made her a captive audience for one male coworker in particular, who unleashed a constant stream of sexual remarks about his coworkers, including teens like Anibal. “You can’t take [the headset] off, because [then] you can’t do your job. You’re forced to listen to whatever anybody is saying,” Anibal told me. He made comments like “Did you see [coworker’s] ass?” or described having sex with another employee. “Even when I was taking orders for my job, he would talk over them so I [couldn’t] even hear the person.” And everyone could hear what her coworker was saying, managers included.
“This [was] my first formal job, so I guess I [thought] this is how it is,” Anibal said. “Everyone working there had gotten used to it, and it was just sort of normalized.”
Most McDonald’s jobs are low-paying; the average worker makes less than $9 an hour. That leaves employees in a precarious financial position, making it harder for them to react to harassment in any way that might endanger their jobs. “Folks who are living paycheck to paycheck, on the margins, [don’t have] the wherewithal to stand up for themselves,” Thomas said. “Even if the wrongdoing is egregious, there is going to be a lot of fear about coming forward because the consequences will be so grave.”
There is usually also a high turnover rate. “These are especially dehumanizing places to work,” Thomas noted. “People are made to feel like they’re pretty replaceable. [Not] feeling entitled to speak up is a huge problem.”
At first Brittany Hoyos didn’t want to say anything. “I didn’t tell a manger because they already knew about it,” she said in her complaint. “I just wanted to keep quiet.” But eventually she told her parents, including her mother, Maribel Hoyos, who had started to work at the same restaurant. “I felt guilty,” Maribel Hoyos told me. “Like I had failed her.” She and her husband reported what was happening to their daughter to multiple managers at multiple levels, including the franchise manager, but received little response.
A number of the women I spoke with didn’t know how to report their coworkers’ behavior even if they wanted to. Rivers, the Kansas City employee, was able to track down a phone number for the franchise office and told her story to the franchise owner. When nothing changed, she attempted to find a number for the corporate headquarters in the break room, and when she couldn’t find one there, she googled it. “There was no harassment hotline, nothing like that,” she said. “I had to find the resources myself.” When she reached someone in the human resources department at the corporate headquarters, she was told to call a different number for the franchises in her district. That connected her to a different franchise from the one she worked for. She kept calling the headquarters, only to be redirected to numbers for the wrong regional divisions, where no one responded.
All the workers I spoke with or whose legal filings I reviewed said that after they finally summoned the courage to speak up and report their harassment to their manager or to a franchise owner, no substantial measures were taken to protect them from further abuse. The lack of action and accountability when employees made reports was disturbingly typical, Thomas said, “to an extent that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else.” Some managers gave the harassers verbal warnings, but the behavior continued anyway. Brittany Hoyos’s harasser was briefly moved to another location, then he returned to hers, and the harassment continued. Women were made to feel as if they hadn’t told the truth or the harassment hadn’t been a big deal. Some were even laughed at. Barber’s general manager tried “to make it like a joke,” she recalled. “I felt almost invalidated, like everything I was saying wasn’t true. So it almost made me think, ’Am I doing something wrong?’”
Instead of the harassers facing discipline, punishment was often meted out to the victims. After her parents complained, Hoyos was assigned difficult or uncomfortable tasks—working the grill all day or being stuck at the drive-through window for an entire shift. She was also disciplined for minor infractions, had her hours cut, was demoted, and got suspended for two weeks. She was eventually fired.
Her mother suffered, too. Despite having committed “a lot of time and effort into moving up the ladder,” including management classes, Maribel Hoyos was pulled out of the classes and passed over for a promotion. She eventually decided to leave, which was a huge sacrifice. “You took your time away from your family, you took your time from doing other things to move up in the company,” she said. “Once you’ve done something for so many years and once you know how to do something…those are the skills you have and you’re comfortable with, [and] it’s hard to veer off of that.”
Such retaliation was not an isolated incident. Thirteen other workers whose harassment complaints The Nation reviewed said they experienced retaliation for reporting what happened to them. Many had their hours reduced. That meant a steep loss of income, leading to severe financial hardship. Fairley, the mother of the 1-year-old girl, was living in a rooming house and trying to save up for everything her daughter needed. “I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have anything,” she told me. So when her hours were cut, “it was like, how am I going to eat? How am I going to support my daughter?”
Difficult or undesirable work like the kind Brittany Hoyos was assigned was often given as punishment. Evelia Rico was tasked with taking pallets of food to the basement, leading to a lower back injury, and was stuck at the drive-through window, which employees called “the hole.” The stress gave her nightmares. “Every night I dream about feeling helpless and being yelled at and mistreated at work,” she said in her complaint.
For some of these women, things became so difficult that they decided they had to quit. After Rivers rejected her manager’s advances, his attitude toward her “completely changed,” she wrote in her charge, and he started threatening to write her up every time they worked together for things as minor as not moving fast enough, not speaking loudly enough, or not wearing the right-color shirt. “I was trying to stick around, but it got to [the point that] I couldn’t handle the aggravation,” she told me. “So I just left.”
The word nearly every woman used to describe how the harassment made them feel was “uncomfortable.” But it went far beyond discomfort. It made Barber “feel scared [and] sad,” she said. She ended up with headaches and anxiety. Fairley still suffers from depression, so much so that sometimes she doesn’t want to eat. She asks her mother to watch her daughter “so I [can] just be alone and cry by myself.” Reddick said her attitude changed after the harassment. “I was mad about everything. I was always angry,” she said.
“I started hating work, not wanting to go to work,” Rivers said. “I couldn’t focus.”
A number of women described the same experience: being filled with dread at the very thought of going to their jobs and being exposed to more harassment. Barber would sit in her car “until the last second” on the days that her harasser was working, she said. “It was a dreadful feeling. I never wanted to go to work.”
To protect themselves when their managers didn’t help them, many took matters into their own hands, reducing their hours or rearranging their schedules. Fairley changed shifts so that she wouldn’t work at the same time as her harasser. Barber put the people she supervised in areas that damaged productivity but ensured her harasser wasn’t near her. “It affected my work performance, for sure,” she said. Reddick cut her own hours from 35 a week to 21 in order to avoid shifts with her harasser. She left early anytime she worked with him. “It pushed me back into a struggle,” she said of the lost hours. “Some days I wouldn’t even eat because I had to feed [my daughter].”
Many often contemplated quitting, but economic necessity kept them trapped with their harassers. “I wanted to quit multiple times,” Rivers said. But she had to pay her weekly fee to the motel where she lived, and if she quit, there was “no telling how long before I find another job.” Others fled their workplaces for jobs that paid less. Anibal took a position as a nanny that was much more demanding and paid her nearly $2 an hour less. “But it was also really nice…to be at a job where I felt more comfortable,” she said.
Not everyone left out of anguish or was fired in retaliation. Fairley still works at McDonald’s. After admitting his behavior to a visiting corporate consultant, one of her harassers was eventually fired, and the other was transferred to another restaurant over a different matter. But both are still allowed to go to her restaurant and order food from her when she works the register. The remaining coworkers treat her coldly. “It’s an awkward thing, feeling like an outcast,” she said. And she is still gripped by the worry that she will be harassed again by a new hire and nothing will be done to protect her.
The harassment continues to haunt Anibal, who is now attending college full-time. While many of her fellow students are working in food service to make money, “I just can’t even bring myself to apply for those jobs, because it just makes me anxious thinking it would happen again,” she said.
Barber is similarly traumatized. Now she’s always on edge, waiting for the harassment to be repeated in a new work environment. “Especially when I start a new job, one of my first thoughts will be, ‘Wow, I really hope that doesn’t happen again,’” she said. “I’m really cautious as to how I say things, even, cautious of how people are moving and what they’re doing.”
Maribel Hoyos’s experience ”tore our family apart,” she said. She and her husband are now separated. “It was like a chain reaction…that is going to leave hurt and pretty much destruction throughout our family for years to come,” she said, her voice heavy from crying. “Things like this go way deeper than just a job, just that one person,” she added. “This changes people’s lives permanently.”
Sexual harassment is not unique to McDonald’s. In 2016, 40 percent of women in nonmanagerial fast-food jobs said they had experienced unwanted sexual behavior at work. But harassment at McDonald’s appears to be of a different degree. In a survey of 782 current and former nonmanagerial employees conducted this April, three-quarters said they had experienced sexual harassment at work, with the majority dealing with multiple forms at once. Half were subjected to sexual comments; a third were touched, groped, or fondled; and 12 percent were sexually assaulted or raped. Many experienced these things multiple times.
Maribel Hoyos worked at Little Caesars before joining McDonald’s full-time. “They did things very differently,” she said. At Little Caesars there was an anonymous hotline that employees could call with concerns. If someone made use of it, a human resources representative would respond the next day. There were also rules forbidding people at certain levels of authority to socialize with those below them outside work. “I was just surprised that McDonald’s, being a big company, wouldn’t have something like Little Caesars,” she said.
Harassment is not an unsolvable problem. “It’s not rocket science,” Thomas said. “But it does take a commitment in terms of dollars and personnel time, including time spent listening to workers.”
McDonald’s employees have been trying to make themselves heard. They filed a series of lawsuits starting in 2016, including 10 complaints with the EEOC in 2018 and 25 legal actions in 2019, as well as a class-action lawsuit in Michigan, now in discovery in federal court, that includes Barber and Anibal. In 10 cities at the end of 2018, they staged the country’s first-ever national strike against sexual harassment.
“McDonald’s is the biggest name in fast food,” Thomas noted. Its behavior will affect the entire sector. “If we can change McDonald’s, we can change the world,” said Cervantez.
But changing it won’t be easy. One challenge these legal complaints face is the company’s business model. Just 7 percent of McDonald’s global locations are owned by the company and thus are under its direct control; the rest are owned and operated by franchisees. McDonald’s has used this fact to shield itself from legal responsibility. But the lawyers representing these women argue that the corporate entity should be considered a joint employer, legally responsible for what happens in its franchised locations, because it exerts so much control over them. “They really control every single piece of what an employee has to do on a day-to-day basis,” Cervantez said, like “how they fry their fries and what uniform they wear and what they say to somebody when they order.”
That legal argument is in contention. The Trump administration has waded into the fight, issuing rules at the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board that severely restrict joint employer liability in cases of wage and overtime claims and labor law violations. The EEOC is working on similar rules. In December the NLRB found in favor of McDonald’s in a lawsuit brought by striking workers that tried to hold the corporate entity responsible for franchisees who retaliated against them, ruling that the company isn’t a joint employer.
The lawyers argue that even if McDonald’s can’t be held liable as a joint employer, the franchise employees are still led to believe that they’re working for the company, not a small franchise owner, indicting the corporate entity under what is known as the apparent agency theory. “They wear McDonald’s uniforms, work in a McDonald’s store,” Cervantez observed. “If you ask them, ‘Who do you work for?’…they say, ‘McDonald’s.’”
The company’s recent changes haven’t gone nearly far enough, Cervantez and Thomas said. Fairley worked at a company-owned McDonald’s before, during, and after the supposed changes. She went through a two-hour training. But it covered more than sexual harassment, she said, and there was no information about what to do if you’re harassed or how to report it. “They could do more to prevent anyone else from being harassed,” she said. Indeed, in the recent survey of current and former workers, only about a third said they had seen the new training implemented in their restaurants.
Workers want the company to listen to them. “The first thing that all of our clients want is to be heard,” Cervantez said. From that should come much more substantial changes to address and prevent harassment, everything from more effective training and better investigations to stricter consequences for harassers. And workers want the company to track and audit its actions to make sure they’re reducing harassment in its restaurants.
McDonald’s has been facing pressure from its employees on a number of fronts. The Fight for $15, launched in 2012, has targeted the company in its push for a wage of at least $15 an hour and workers’ ability to form a union. That campaign has since highlighted a disturbing pattern of violence at work, filing a lawsuit and a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleging that the company has failed to protect its employees. Workers have also alleged racial discrimination: Ten filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2015 charging that Black and Hispanic employees were subjected to slurs and were fired because they “didn’t fit the profile.” In July, Black workers in Florida filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging a “racially hostile work environment.”
All of these fights are connected. Low pay and mistreatment result when a company sees its workers as replaceable and disposable. That problem has only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic: McDonald’s employees have complained and staged more strikes, saying that the company hasn’t taken adequate steps to protect them. But fighting sexual harassment presents some unique challenges. The trauma that targeted workers experience makes many of them reluctant to come forward—and after they do, it is painful to have to keep talking about it.
Fairley called herself a “really quiet person,” someone who finds it hard to talk about herself with strangers to begin with. But this is worse. “It is traumatizing for me to keep speaking about it. Sometimes I just break down in tears,” she said. “Every time I talk about it, I feel like I’ve relived it.”
Reddick is also shy, and at first it was difficult for her to talk about what happened. “I used to cry and cry and cry,” she said. It’s gotten easier as she has seen other women standing up. “I know so many people are behind me, so many got my back. I’m more open about it because I’m not alone.”
Nearly all the women I spoke to felt sadness and anger but also strength in standing together. “Sometimes when I would work there, I felt a little crazy—like ‘This is crazy that he works here but everyone else thinks it’s normal,’” Anibal said. Seeing her story repeated in others’ experiences made her feel sane. It made Rivers feel less alone as well. “You really don’t realize how many people are in the exact situation you’re going through, and then you meet them,” she said.
Kimberly Lawson decided to speak out about her experience at a McDonald’s in Kansas to give more women that feeling of recognition. “I just want anybody who’s ever been sexually harassed, sexually abused—I want to be that voice so that everyone knows…it’s not only you it’s happened to,” she said. Some of her family members faced sexual abuse, including her mother. But none of them spoke publicly about their experiences, she said, divulging their stories only to her. “The look on their faces, you could tell they still carry that pain with them,” Lawson said, choking back tears. She didn’t want to stay silent, too. “Wounds don’t heal when you don’t talk about it,” she said. She added that her mother is proud of what she’s doing. “She was proud of the fact that I could stand up for myself like she couldn’t.”
Lawson is also doing it for the next generation. “I don’t want my child to go through what I was going through,” she said.
Fairley has taken her now 3-year-old daughter to marches and protests. “She loves it,” she said. “She sees that her mom is standing up for herself and for her.”
Leaving McDonald’s meant a loss of income for Lois Jones’s family; her children’s father had to support the household. “He started turning gray,” she said. Things are better now, especially since she’s at a workplace where she feels safe. But she’s still climbing out of that financial hole. She’s been fighting to keep her house from being foreclosed on since she fell behind on her property taxes. “I’m moving slow to get where I was,” she said.
But Jones is determined to hold McDonald’s accountable. “If y’all not going to listen to me, somebody will,” she said. “Somebody needs to take action, and somebody needs to take responsibility for what happened to me.”