McDonald’s Is Serving Up Sexual Harassment

McDonald’s isn’t just a fast-food restaurant. It’s an American institution, with sales of $37.6 billion in 2017. And we don’t just flock there as customers. The company employs more than 1 million people at its U.S. corporate offices and more than 14,000 franchise stores. Indeed, according to one estimate, nearly 13 percent of all Americans have worked for the company at some point in its history. 

But in the past few years, female McDonald’s employees have begun speaking out about the ugly cost of serving up Big Macs: egregious sexual harassment. Most recently, in May 2018, 10 women working in McDonald’s restaurants stretching from California to Florida filed charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — the first step toward a federal civil rights lawsuit — alleging a wide range of unchecked harassment, perpetrated by supervisors and co-workers. And on Sept. 18, 2018, thousands of McDonald’s workers in 10 cities protested the company’s culture of harassment by walking off the job. As one striking worker from Chicago put it at the time, “You will hear us today. We will not stay silent anymore.”   

On Monday, the ACLU joined forces with the Fight for $15 movement and the law firms of Altshuler Berzon LLP and Outten & Golden LLP to lay the groundwork for the next wave of EEOC harassment charges against the company. As one of the country’s largest employers and the most profitable fast-food chain, McDonald’s must be held accountable. 

The misconduct documented in the pending EEOC charges runs the gamut from sexually explicit comments to improper touching. In Chicago, for instance, a manager asked a female employee, “How many dicks can you fit in your hole?” Women have reported unwanted hugging, back rubs, spanking, and intentional “brushing up” against them. Some said they were trapped in supply closets and pestered for dates. One woman alleged that a male manager she worked with threatened to expose his genitals to her. 

Tune into the Lifetime network tonight to hear from three of the complainants on “Breaking the Silence,” hosted by former Fox news anchor Gretchen Carlson at 8 p.m. ET.

The women — one of whom was just 15 years old at the time she was harassed — further contend that McDonald’s provides little to no information about harassment or how to lodge a complaint. But when they did complain, the women faced retaliation, including cuts in their hours, unwarranted discipline, and outright termination.

Since the #MeToo movement erupted a year ago, the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry has become more well-known, but it’s long been a reality. Fast food workers are no exception: One study found that 40 percent of female employees had experienced at least one form of harassment. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that the vast majority of the fast-food workforce comprises “front-line workers,” or non-managerial employees like cooks and cashiers. These employees — most of whom are adults, contrary to stereotypes — live at the economic margins, unable to risk losing a shift or a job by filing a complaint. They earn an average of less than $9 an hour, and consequently, roughly half of them rely on one or more forms of public assistance, in contrast to just 25 percent of the rest of the American workforce. More than a quarter of them are supporting children.

McDonald’s likes to evade responsibility for the abuse occurring in its restaurants around the country by explaining that the majority are independently owned franchises. The company contends that civil rights violations occurring at those locations are, to put it bluntly, not its problem. But where a company dictates the smallest details in how franchisees fulfill its brand — down to what kind of pickles they may use — it should not be able to absolve itself of the harassment endured by the people who make that brand profitable.

McDonald’s employees have asked the company to, among other measures, strengthen its policies against harassment; mandate training for all supervisors and employees; create a safe and effective system for receiving and responding to complaints; and convene a committee of workers, representatives from corporate and franchise stores, and workers’ rights advocates to identify other remedies. These are common-sense demands. We will be working to assure that they become a reality.

If you have experienced harassment at McDonald’s, tell us your story.

View comments (8)
Read the Terms of Use

Eleanor Murray

I taught sexual harassment and discrimination issue reporting practices in the 80's....I SIMPLY REFUSE TO BELIEVE these women were not told how to report!

Anonymous

Eleanor Murray, How are you so sure that it can't be true? Just because you trained some other people at some other time? That makes no sense.

Anonymous

I dont think they should make 15.00 dollars an hour when at most of them you have to punch in your own order. Also alot of teenagers work ther and its a shame they will make more then their parents. I can agree 10.00 dollars but start at 9.00. Also sexual harrassment isnt ok in any work place. But please be sure they werent led on.

Anonymous

That's because their parents wages should go up, too. Everyone's wages are remaining stagnant while inflation continues and the spending power of the dollar continues its decline. Does nobody understand how inflation works?

Anonymous

that is disgusting. we need to stand for women's right. no sexual harassment in the workplace

Anonymous

I agree with that and they need to stop the harrassment of anyone for their gender.

Anonymous

From 1987-1991 I worked at one of the corporater offices for McDonald's Corporation in Ohio after having worked in several of their Corporately owned stores for five years. I was an Administrative Assistant in charge of a group of other Assistants. The Regional Managers and two District Managers who worked in the office with me were "good old boys" and sexual harassment was a way of life back then. I saw people report sexual harassment and the next day get set up and lost their job. All the men were not like that; just three in particular. I was constantly propositioned, demeaned, and treated like an object instead of a working woman. One night I had to be in the office late waiting for a copier to be delivered. One of the Managers came into the office, drunk, and tried to proposition me physically and verbally. I rebuffed his attempts using humor. Finally the phone rang and the copier folks were downstairs. This Manager joined me in the elevator and accousted me (I am not going into details; the man has since passed away and I see no need to trample on a man's grave.) Thank God it was only three floors or I would have been forcibally raped.

To Eleanor Murray-you may have taught and told women how to report it, but plain and simple, you would have lost your job; at least where I worked. The old boys network was alive and kicking back then. I eventually resigned my post for a different reason. What bothers me most is Mr. Steve Easterbrook claiming it's not an issue as 90% of the stores are Owner Operated. Not so back in the 80's/90's. I even worked with one of the individuals who currently holds a position at the corporate level. This individual was always a gentleman, always of the utmost respect to all, and it's nice to see he has moved up so well in the organization.

My time of reporting has certainly passed the statue of limitations, but this new generation of workers, women and men, I truly hope their complaints of sexual harassment do not fall on deaf ears. I dealt with it by accepting it; I needed my job and for that time I had excellent benefits and salary. It was a company I wanted to retire from; but it wasn't meant to be. I hope the ACLU holds Corporate McDonald's accountable. My time has passed and my voice can no longer be heard; maybe today's employees' voices will be heard and believied without repurcussions.

Jay Dubya

I think that like most "harassment" complaints, this is all about money. Basing lawsuits on he said/she said situations only ever results in one side getting screwed and we know which side that is. The only ones who cash in are the ones who can play the race and gender cards. If the $15 minimum wage requirement becomes reality for 16 year old part time after school burger flippers, I hope McDonalds moves to those robotic, automated hamburger making machines and gets rid of their crappy employees. See how happy that makes them.

Stay Informed