The women I met while reporting on McDonald’s broke my heart. Tanya Harrell was a 21-year-old shouldering the huge responsibility of supporting her extended family in Louisiana on her McDonald's salary of $15 an hour. One day at work, she says a male co-worker trapped her in the bathroom, ripped her pants off and tried to rape her. He stopped only when someone in the restaurant called for him. Harrell said the assault “changed me forever” by permanently undermining her sense of safety and security. To add indignity to injustice, she was also verbally harassed by co-workers before and after the attempted rape. She reported it to her franchise management, which, she says, did nothing.
Kristi Maisenbach was in her early 20s while working at a McDonald’s on the West Coast. She says she complained to franchise managers after a male co-worker offered her $1,000 for oral sex. Their response? Maisenbach says she was demoted to janitorial duty and her hours were drastically cut.
Kim Lawson was 23 when I interviewed her in Kansas City, Mo. Lawson, an African American woman, says her male colleagues at McDonald’s nicknamed her “chocolate” and repeatedly rubbed up against her. Like Maisenbach, Lawson says she was retaliated against after complaining, losing hours when a manager sent her home early, and eventually fired.
Since then, Harrell and Lawson have become activists working with Fight for $15, the national campaign to raise the minimum wage. In May, workers like them took to the streets in 13 cities to call out a culture of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and dismal pay at the restaurant chain. Presidential hopefuls, including Bernie Sanders, Julián Castro and Jay Inslee joined the protests, and the American Civil Liberties Union and Fight For $15 announced a combination of lawsuits and complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laying out sexual harassment allegations at both the McDonald’s corporation and its franchises.
McDonald’s chief executive Steve Easterbrook wrote in a letter last month that the company is taking steps to combat harassment, including “listening to employees across the system.”
I hope he hears what Maisenbach, Harrell and Lawson have to say. I've often been asked if I have anything in common with fast food workers. My answer is simple: I have everything in common with them. I want to state the obvious — there is no comparing a settlement with Fox News and unemployment benefits. For me, getting fired wasn't the difference between making rent or living in my car.
By “everything,” I mean that harassment and retaliation have the same emotional impact and create an immediate connection and trust between me and these brave women. My fame was a helpful ingredient in elevating my story of workplace sexual harassment and the issue more broadly. But it didn’t protect me from being harassed in the first place.
Even for women in my position who are harassed, it’s almost impossible to come forward and tell our own stories. But just as Harrell, Maisenbach and Lawson have done, once those of us who have influence and public profiles do come forward, we can go further and use our platforms not just to protect ourselves but also to change the systems that enabled our harassers.
McDonald’s has long suggested that the people who operate its franchises, not the corporation itself, are the ones legally liable in harassment cases, though the National Labor Relations Board is considering a case that would upend that model. But if protocols to deal with salmonella, beef shortages or inadequate fries exist, and if managers are trained so carefully in following those rules, then shareholders and regulators can surely expect consistency in worker-safety policies. Sexual harassment and retaliation are against federal law, and breaking that law is a crime, full stop. Making sure its franchisees follow the law is McDonald’s’ moral, if not legal, responsibility.
McDonald's should do the right thing and make women’s safety as important as crispy fries. Meanwhile, it’s important that workers, journalists and consumers make sure the pressure stays on the Golden Arches — and that other industries employing working-class women know we care as much about their employees as we do about celebrities.