BUSINESS
10/05/2016 05:08 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2016

McDonald's Workers Detail Horrifying Sexual Harassment

And say the fast food giant ignores them.
McDonald's is America's second-largest employer. 
ASSOCIATED PRESS
McDonald's is America's second-largest employer. 

McDonald’s ignored serious instances of sexual harassment ― including groping, propositioning and lewd comments ― endured by hourly workers in eight states, according to 15 separate complaints that restaurant cashiers and cooks filed with a federal agency over the past month. 

Workers reported having their breasts and posteriors grabbed, and hearing obscene comments about their appearance and sexual orientation from bosses and colleagues (some of those reported statements appear uncensored below). Some workers were shown pornographic images by their supervisors. In one instance, a woman’s boss texted her offering $1,000 for oral sex.

“One day, [my shift supervisor] Derek showed me a photo of his genitals. That was my breaking point,” said Cycei Monae, who quit her job making $8.50 an hour at a Flint, Mich., McDonald’s after experiencing repeated advances.

Workers detail horrifying stories of sexual advances and inappropriate behavior in a video produced by the activist group Fight for 15.

They describe being grabbed by the waist, getting their butts slapped and being asked, “What position do I play in the bedroom?” They talk about staying quiet about the behavior; a few say they reported it and were told that it was their fault. In other cases, nothing was done.

The complaints to the EEOC paint a sad picture of working life for those at the very bottom of the pay scale in America and at McDonald’s, the nation’s second-largest employer.

They point to a much larger problem with sexual harassment in the fast food industry. In a survey released Wednesday, 2 in 5 women working in fast food reported experiencing some kind of harassment. Fearing retaliation and unsure of where to turn, few workers tell anyone about their experiences, instead suffering through the horrifying and stressful treatment.

The complaints also test a new legal standard just established last year, which would hold McDonald’s accountable for labor violations in franchise-owned stores.

Only one of the complaints involves a McDonald’s that is owned outright by the corporation; the rest are franchise operated. Current and former workers who are members of Fight for 15 in California, New York, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Illinois and Florida filed the allegations with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

For years, under the law, McDonald’s could not be held accountable for labor violations in franchise-owned stores. That changed last year with a decision from the National Labor Relations Board, which established that some companies can be considered a “joint employer” and held accountable for the actions of franchisees and contractors.

Ninety percent of McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. are franchise owned. Excluding franchises, McDonald’s employs about 90,000 workers in corporate restaurants in the U.S., but if you include franchise workers the number tops 1 million.

In a statement, McDonald’s seemed to distance itself from its franchises, which it took care to describe as independently operated. “At McDonald’s, we and our independent owner-operators share a deep commitment to the respectful treatment of everyone,” spokesperson Terri Hickey said in an email to The Huffington Post. “There is no place for harassment and discrimination of any kind in McDonald’s restaurants or in any workplace. We take any concerns seriously and are reviewing the allegations.”

The complaints detail a range of repulsive behavior perpetrated by shift supervisors, managers and co-workers. A few concern harassment from customers. Fight for 15 is planning protests nationwide on Thursday over McDonald’s handling of sexual harassment.

Two of the complaints are from men who allege discrimination over their sexual orientation. Andrew McConnell, 34, says he was terminated from a restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., after being repeatedly harassed over his sexual orientation. “Get away from me, you faggot,” a store manager told McConnell on one occasion, according to the complaint.

Workers say that when they complained, their hours were cut and they were ignored.

Those who filed complaints aren’t seeking monetary damages, but instead want McDonald’s to enforce its publicly stated no-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, Kendall Fells, the organizing director for Fight for 15, said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters. They’re also seeking to unionize.

“If these workers had a union the process would be a lot different. You would have a voice on the job. Now you go to corporate and you end up getting your hours cut or you quit or get fired,” he said.

It might seem that 15 workers complaining of harassment at a massive company doesn’t represent much of an issue. However, the fact that these women and men are publicly airing their grievances is significant.

Fells said that his organization regularly hears complaints from McDonald’s workers about sexual harassment.

“A lot of sexual harassment goes unreported,” EEOC spokesperson Christine Nazer told HuffPost. Workers may fear consequences of speaking up, losing their jobs or creating even worse working conditions for themselves. For low-paid workers, the situation is even more fraught. They may feel they have no choice but to endure this treatment.

Immigrant workers are another particularly vulnerable group when it comes to harassment. They may not understand their rights as employees or be even more fearful of losing their jobs.

Consuelo Leon, a McDonald’s cashier in Oak Brook, Ill., was working the drive-thru when her manager “caressed her back and then unsnapped her bra,” according to Leon’s complaint. “When Consuelo confronted him he responded that he did it ‘because he could,’” according to the complaint.

Protesters march to a McDonald's restaurant in downtown Los Angeles on April 14.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Protesters march to a McDonald's restaurant in downtown Los Angeles on April 14.

Forty percent of women who work in fast food say they’ve experienced some kind of unwanted sexual behavior at work, according to a survey of 1,217 women in the industry conducted by Hart Research and commissioned by Futures Without Violence, the Ms. Foundation and the National Partnership for Women and Families in conjunction with Fight for 15.

“This is appalling. Women in the fast food industry struggle to pay their rent, feed their kids, to buy warm clothes in the winter,” Sarah Fleisch Fink, director of workplace policy and senior counsel at the National Partnership for Women and Families, told reporters on Wednesday. “We must do more to protect them from sexual harassment and ensure their employers take appropriate action when it does occur.”

Forty-two percent of those who experienced harassment said they needed to accept it because they couldn’t afford to lose their jobs. Fifteen percent of those women who experience harassment said they changed their schedule, 10 percent said they cut back on their hours and 8 percent quit, according to Hart’s survey.

African-American and Latina women are more likely to experience negative consequences when they report sexual harassment to their employers, and more likely to feel like they couldn’t afford to lose their jobs, according to the survey.

The survey asked women about 18 different types of harassment including unwanted sexual teasing, jokes, remarks or questions; unwanted hugging or touching; unwanted questions about workers’ sexual interest; and assault or rape on the job (reported by 2 percent of respondents).

McDonald’s business has been struggling in recent years as consumer tastes range away from overly processed assembly line-style fast food toward fare that contains fresher produce or is less processed. Meanwhile, the $25 billion chain has been under increasing pressure from Fight for 15 ― a group established in New York a few years ago that has been targeting the chain to raise wages.

Stories of longtime McDonald’s workers who still make less than $10 an hour after years of service are not uncommon. Last year, as pressure grew and the economy picked up, McDonald’s announced it would raise its average hourly minimum pay to $9.90 from $9.01 and would let pay rise above $10 an hour by the end of this year. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.

It was a small sop to activists pushing for $15 an hour ― and the raise only affected those who work in corporate-owned McDonald’s.

After Kristi Maisenbach, a McDonald’s worker in Folsom, Calif., making $9 an hour, complained to her store manager about ongoing harassment ― including a text message offering her $1,000 for oral sex ―  her manager said she shouldn’t have “flirted” with him. Her hours were cut to eight a week, from 30, she said on Wednesday.

“When you’re barely making enough to get by, speaking up means risking your check, your next hot meal, your electricity bill,” she said. “It’s hard to share these stories but I’m proud to speak out.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Cycei Monae as C.C. Monet.

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