Workers in 10 cities will walk out at lunchtime to highlight their struggle and call on the company to take action
Last summer Tanya Harrell was working in McDonald’s in Gretna, Louisiana, when she says a co-worker started making unwanted sexual advances.
A colleague she occasionally gave lifts to started touching her inappropriately at work, grabbing her breasts and backside and asking her to touch his penis. “I felt totally exposed, as if I did not have a skin or shell. I felt like I was outside my own body, watching what was happening,” she said in a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
When she complained Harrell said her managers did not take it seriously and suggested there was some kind of relationship between the two and she should take it to the “next level”. She was told she was acting “like a little girl” and was childish to complain about it.
After these incidents another co-worker took her into the men’s bathroom, pinned her against a wall, exposed himself and tried to have sex with her. She burst into tears and was saved only when a manager called for the worker. Harrell never reported the incident because she said her previous complaints had fallen on deaf ears.
On Tuesday Harrell and hundreds of other McDonald’s workers will protest outside the fast-food giant’s restaurants in 10 cities across the US, highlighting what they claim is an epidemic of sexual harassment for workers that they say the company has done little to address.
Workers in Chicago, McDonald’s home town, Durham, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Orlando, San Francisco and St Louis will all walk out at lunchtime in an effort to highlight their struggle and call on the company to take action.
Bolstered by the success of the #MeToo movement, where high-profile women have decried sexual harassment in the workplace, they are hoping the strike will highlight the plight of women and LGBT workers in low-paid jobs who face similar issues on a daily basis but whose struggles rarely make the headlines.
Harrell is one of 10 people who filed charges with the EEOC detailing widespread sexual harassment. They are being backed by the Fight for $15 low-wage group and the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, founded earlier this year to help provide lawyers for women who don’t have the money to hire one.
Adrianna Alvarez, who has worked for McDonald’s in Chicago for nine years, says the problem is “nationwide, worldwide”.
“People are scared. They worry that if they complain it will affect their legal status, they could get fired or there could be retaliation,” she said. “Women depend on these jobs.” She said all the women she knows in fast food have examples or know of people who have been affected.
One of her colleagues became so frightened after workplace abuse that she felt unable to use the bathroom. “She couldn’t face passing the manager, to have to hold it in all day, that’s abusive,” said Alvarez.
Annelise Orleck, professor of history at Dartmouth College and author of We Are All Fast-Food Workers, a history of the new labour movement growing among low-wage workers, said abuse of this kind in the fast-food industry was “endemic”.
“There is a big movement of working-class women brewing. They are banking that in the age of #MeToo customers will not tolerate this kind of behavior.”
She pointed to victories by hotel workers in Chicago, where an ordinance now requires hotels to provide panic buttons to all workers who clean, restock, or take inventory alone in guest rooms and rest rooms. A similar ordinance is being discussed in California. Orleck said 66% of hotel workers say they have experienced sexual harassment; in fast food the figure is around 40%.
In a statement McDonald’s said: “There is no place for harassment or discrimination of any kind at McDonald’s. Since our founding, we’ve been committed to a culture that fosters the respectful treatment of everyone. We have policies, procedures and training in place that are specifically designed to prevent sexual harassment at our company and company-owned restaurants, and we firmly believe that our franchisees share this commitment.”
The company also said it was engaging third-party experts Rainn, an anti-sexual violence organisation, and Seyfarth Shaw at Work, an employment law training firm, to “evolve our policies, procedures and training. We will continue – as we always have – to look at ways to do even more to ensure that McDonald’s values are reflected in every restaurant, every day.”
But the legacy of abuse continues, workers say. Harrell says she is still dealing with the impact of her experience at McDonald’s. “I feel uncomfortable, afraid and upset,” she said. “Managers feel it’s not their problem. They don’t take it seriously,” said Harrell.