In the summer of 2017, single mother Kimberly Lawson needed a second job, so she got one at McDonald’s. She quickly realized it wasn’t what she had hoped for. As a crew member, she earned just $8.75 per hour, which “wasn’t enough to survive,” she said.
But then it got much, much worse. Her male coworker started staring at her “constantly” and brushing up against her, “always in my space all the time,” she said. He would go out of his way to walk by her, sometimes touching her butt as he did. It can be close quarters behind a McDonald’s counter, but that wasn’t the problem. “There would be more than enough room,” she said. And yet still he would get “uncomfortably close.” He started giving her gifts—doughnuts, an Earth Wind and Fire CD—that he didn’t bring for any of the other employees.
She reported what was happening to the store’s general manager, but he didn’t talk to her coworker or do anything else to intervene. “I feel like he completely dismissed me,” she said. Then a different shift manager spoke with her coworker, but his behavior still continued.
Then it happened again with a different coworker. A night shift manager started making uncomfortable comments about her body—telling her things like “You’re sexy,” “You have a big butt,” and “You are chocolate”—and talking to her about leaving her boyfriend. This was even worse. “I felt like he would be more serious,” she said. “The way he used to just talk to me, he used to scare me. I would feel like he would follow me home.”
Yet she decided not to report her shift manager. “Nothing was done about the coworker” when she reported him, she noted. “I figured they wouldn’t even do anything.” Instead, she took matters into her own hands, changing her schedule and cutting her shifts in order to avoid him. “I didn’t have the money to do that, I was still a single parent,” she said. But “I had to cut my own work hours just to get away from that.… I just had to get out of that situation.” She couldn’t afford to quit, and she worried that switching to a different location would only mean getting harassed by someone else. “It wasn’t just at that store. I was certain of that.”
She was right—Lawson is far from alone. In a new survey conducted in April of 782 female McDonald’s employees who were either currently employed in non-managerial positions or had been within the last year shared exclusively with The Nation, three-quarters reported experiencing sexual harassment on the job. Just 20 percent said they work at a location where neither they nor their coworkers have been harassed.
Two-thirds of the survey respondents had experienced multiple forms of harassment, with half of all respondents who had received sexual comments, half who had received sexually suggestive looks or gestures, and a third who were touched, groped, or fondled. Twenty-nine percent had been asked to have sex with a coworker, 22 percent were offered more hours, a promotion, or another benefit in exchange for dates or sex, and 19 percent received threats for refusing to date or have sex with a coworker. Twelve percent were sexually assaulted or raped. For many, these things happened multiple times.
In response to a request for comment, a McDonald’s spokesperson wrote in an email, “The crew and managers are the heart and soul of every McDonald’s restaurant, and McDonald’s and its franchisees are dedicated to ensuring that their work environment is free from all forms of discrimination and harassment. We’ve demonstrated our commitment to this issue by consistently offering various Safe and Respectful Workplace Trainings. Without examining the Change to Win poll’s results or methodology in full, we cannot speak to it. However, considering their agenda, we must point out that the poll surveyed less than 0.1% of the individuals who work in a McDonald’s U.S. restaurants, which is hardly representative of the more than 800,000 people working at McDonald’s restaurants nationwide.”
The fast-food industry is no stranger to sexual harassment, a problem that plagues the entire restaurant industry. A 2016 survey of women in fast food found that 42 percent of women had experienced sexual harassment on the job. Nearly every major chain—including KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s—have faced lawsuits over sexual harassment in their stores. Two-thirds of employees at CKE Restaurants, which owns Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., have reported experiencing harassment. But the numbers at McDonald’s, which also holds the title of the being world’s largest fast-food company, are of a different order of magnitude, revealing a deep and widespread problem.
It’s one that employees have started to speak out about. In September 2018 McDonald’s employees filed over 50 lawsuits against the company, including a number of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints across different states and a class action lawsuit in Michigan. On May 18, an international coalition of unions filed a complaint with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development alleging that the company has failed to address “rampant” sexual harassment in both the United States and a number of other countries, the first of its kind lodged against a multinational company over sexual harassment.
Here at home, workers have accused McDonald’s of not doing enough to prevent harassment in its stores. They say they’ve received little to no training on the issue, and that it wasn’t made clear who to report harassment to or how. In response to some of the activism, last year McDonald’s announced a new sexual harassment training program for corporate-owned locations, which it said it would encourage in franchise locations as well. Still, in the survey, only just over a third of workers say they have seen such training implemented in their workplace.
A lack of clear protocols hamstrung Lawson. After her two different coworkers harassed her, she “felt completely alone,” she said. “I didn’t even know the steps I could take.… I didn’t know who I could talk to about it.” She worried that she risked being fired if she kept speaking up.
She was likely right about that as well. The survey found that while most women who were harassed at McDonald’s reported what happened to them, 71 percent faced some form of retaliation for speaking up. Two out of five were fired, denied a raise or promotion, or had their hours cut.
One challenge in holding the company accountable is that it employs a franchise model, pushing responsibility down the corporate ladder to individual franchise owners. But the survey found that harassment is a problem at both franchise and corporate-owned locations. In fact, more women who worked for corporate McDonald’s locations reported experiencing sexual harassment.
Lawson is now among the many women who have decided to speak out publicly. She filed a complaint against the company with the EEOC in 2018. “If McDonald’s won’t listen, I’ll put it to the public’s attention so you’ll have to listen,” she said.
Still, the effects of what she experienced won’t easily be shrugged off. There was an emotional cost. When she cut down on her own hours, it meant making financial sacrifices. “I was barely able to do anything before [but then] there was less things I could do,” she said. “It really took a toll on everything.”