For Kim Lawson, who began working at a McDonald’s in Kansas City, Missouri last year, sexual harassment seemed to come with the job. Almost immediately after she started, she said, a coworker began brushing up against her numerous times and went out of his way to be near her, always standing too close. He would give her gifts, something he didn’t do to anyone else they worked with. But when she told a manager about her coworker’s behavior, no action was taken: “He still worked the same shift. He was still around,” Lawson told Jezebel. The experience soured her on reporting any harassment, so when a night shift manager began hitting on her, making lewd comments about her body, she felt like saying anything would be useless. And since he was a manager, she said, “I felt like I had to be nice about it.”
Lawson is, as she put it, “fed up” with the pervasive harassment and the lack of accountability she and other workers say they have faced while working for the fast food giant—and that’s why on Tuesday, she plans on walking out. Lawson is just one of many workers at the fast food chain in nine cities around the country who plan on taking part in what organizers have billed as the first-ever nationwide strike protesting sexual harassment.
On Tuesday, Lawson will have her three-year-old daughter by her side. “I’m a single mom,” she said. “I want to set the right example for my child by speaking out about something that happened to me that is wrong. I can’t tell her to stand up for herself if I’m not willing to stand up for myself.”
The walkout was planned by a group of newly formed women’s committees made up of McDonald’s employees in cities around the country. In Kansas City, Lawson said, “We all took a vote and the decision to go on strike was unanimous. Every one of us wanted to go on strike and to put an end to sexual harassment.”
They are taking legal action as well. In May 2018, with the support of the union-backed Fight for $15 campaign and the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, Lawson and nine other McDonald’s employees filed sexual harassment complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
All together, the complaints paint a disturbing portrait of just how endemic sexual harassment is at McDonald’s—and how little it’s taken seriously. Their stories highlight how the current system leaves fast food restaurant workers and others in the retail and service industries vulnerable to harassment and sexual violence on the job.
In Detroit, one woman says she was harassed by her store manager, who repeatedly asked her out despite her declining him every time. He would push up against her and touch her while she was bagging orders. After she told him to stop, he became angry and, she wrote, retaliated against her. When she voiced complaints to the franchise owner, there was no investigation.
A 22-year-old woman in Gretna, Louisiana, reported that a coworker would take her hand and put it on his crotch and repeatedly grab her over her pants, her breasts, and her butt. “I felt totally exposed, as if I did not have a skin or shell,” she wrote in her complaint. “I felt like I was outside of my own body, watching what was happening.” When she complained about his conduct to her shift managers, they did nothing, suggesting that it was consensual and that she was childish to complain about sexual harassment. Another employee once tried to rape her, an incident she did not report as managers hadn’t addressed her previous complaint of harassment.
A 20-year-old woman in Durham, North Carolina reported that not only was she subject to racist comments, managers refused to take her complaints of sexual harassment from a coworker seriously. After she wrote a complaint, shift managers would make comments like, “I better stop now before [she] makes another sexual harassment report.” A shift manager once told her he wanted to have a threesome with her and her co-worker. Another shift manager refers to her as “hot ass,” “hot pants,” and “hot mama.”
Many of the women charge that their managers retaliated against them when they voiced their complaints, depriving them of much-needed shifts and even going so far as to fire them for speaking out.
While the Harvey Weinsteins of the world continue to suck up most of the oxygen in the public conversation about #MeToo and workplace sexual harassment, the reality is that for low-wage workers like Lawson, harassment is endemic—and still largely unaddressed.
According to the Center for American Progress, which analyzed a decade’s worth of data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, one out of seven sexual harassment complaints filed with the federal agency came from workers in the accommodation and food services industry. A 2016 survey found that 40 percent of women working at fast food restaurants are sexually harassed while on the job, and one in five report that after raising complaints, they have faced some form of retaliation.
This is not the first time that workers at McDonald’s have charged the company with failing to take sexual harassment seriously. In 2016, workers aligned with the Fight for $15 campaign also filed sexual harassment charges against the company, but little changed in response.
But with the renewed attention on workplace sexual harassment and the support of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which has provided legal representation for the women, workers are hopeful that change will happen.
“We’re pushing for them to do sexual harassment trainings. We want for there to be a safe number to call without rear of retaliation. We want there to be a no tolerance policy for any harassment,” Lawson said.
In a statement to Jezebel, McDonald’s defended its anti-harassment efforts.
“We have strong policies, procedures and training in place specifically designed to prevent sexual harassment,” wrote spokesperson Andrea Abate. “To ensure we are doing all that can be done, we have engaged experts in the areas of prevention and response including, RAINN, to evolve our policies so everyone who works at McDonald’s does so in a secure environment every day.”
Mary Joyce Carlson, the legal counsel for the Fight for $15 campaign who helped workers file the 2016 complaints with the EEOC, is skeptical of the company’s commitment. “Frankly, when McDonald’s is serious about solving a problem, it knows how to do it,” Carlson said. “When they have tainted lettuce in 17 states, they don’t say, ‘Oh this is only a problem for the franchisee.’ They go to work trying to solve the problem across the system.” (Carlson is referencing an ongoing legal challenge over whether or not McDonald’s is considered a “joint employer” of workers at its franchises, which would make it accountable for labor law violations that occur at those franchises.)
“I’m glad it’s getting broader and wider,” Lawson said of the movement against sexual harassment. “Nobody’s situation is better than the other. If it’s being done, it should be recognized no matter where it is.”
Lawson told Jezebel that Tuesday’s walkout is only the first step. “It’s a bigger campaign,” she said. “We’ll be doing more of these.”