Since at least 2016, dozens of McDonald’s workers have said that they endured physical and verbal sexual harassment while working for the iconic American chain. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)
When Angelica Hernandez tried to tell her boss at McDonald’s that she had been sexually harassed, a coworker laughed.
The Los Angeles McDonald’s worker said that someone she worked with had shown her a picture of what Hernandez called “a man’s intimate, private areas.” Hernandez said the person told her, “This is the size or bigger that I want.”
But when Hernandez tried to report the incident, Hernandez said she was asked why she’d bothered in the first place. And when she tried reporting what had happened to HR, Hernandez said her hours were cut in retaliation.
“I am a married woman and I should not have to be exposed to seeing these things at work,” said Hernandez, a Spanish speaker who talked to VICE News through a translator. “Work is like a second home to us. We spend half of our time at work. We want harmony in our workplace. We don’t want to experience violence or sexual harassment there.”
Last April, McDonald’s announced that, by January 2022, it would implement new training to help employees fight discrimination, harassment, and violence in the workplace. But the end of January is now fast approaching, and there’s been no update from McDonald’s.
So workers are going to train themselves.
Since at least 2016, dozens of McDonald’s workers have said that they endured physical and verbal sexual harassment while working for the iconic American chain. They’ve filed more than 50 civil lawsuits, including one that has been certified as a class-action lawsuit, and complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency tasked with enforcing federal anti-workplace discrimination laws. Workers have walked out multiple times, conducting what’s thought to be first multi-state strike against sexual harassment in the United States.
In 2020, McDonald’s accused its own ex-CEO, Steve Easterbrook, of fraud after a company investigation found “photographic evidence” that he had had sexual relationships with three employees in the year before he left McDonald’s, per a lawsuit filed by McDonald’s. (The case was settled in December 2021, and Easterbrook returned his $100 million-plus severance package. In a press release, Easterbrook apologized and said he “failed at times to uphold McDonald’s values and fulfill certain of my responsibilities as a leader of the company.”)
Just last week, a former manager at a McDonald’s in Nebraska was also arrested and charged with first-degree sexual assault. One of his former workers, a 14-year-old, told police that the ex-manager had sexually assaulted her at least twice, at his home.
Eve Cervantez, an attorney who’s represented McDonald’s workers alleging sexual harassment since 2018, told VICE News that teenagers often work at McDonald’s, putting them at particular risk. In one class-action lawsuit, certified in late December, one former employee who started working at a Michigan McDonald’s at 16 years old said that her manager pressured her to exchange sex for hours.
“There’s a lot of teenagers working at McDonald’s to help support their families,” Cervantez said. “You’ve just got a lot of people who really, really need this job, who really need this money, and they’re living hand-to-mouth.”
So now, McDonald’s workers associated with the Fight for $15 campaign are now partnering the nonprofit Futures Without Violence to design and implement training to combat sexual violence in the workplace. Although the rollout will almost certainly be slower than a program implemented by McDonald’s corporate headquarters, advocates are confident that this grassroots, worker-led model will ultimately lead to far more effective changes in the fast food giant.
Frequently, sexual harassment training that gets dictated from the top of the corporate ladder on down to workers just isn’t meaningful to people, said Sarah Gonzalez Bocinski, associate director for workplace and economic justice at Futures Without Violence.
“It’s easy to check out. It doesn’t seem applicable to your life,” Gonzalez Bocinski said. “But when you have really skilled leaders who are passionate organizers, who know how to bring people around the table, show that this is something that they’re a part of and have a stake in—this is the importance of having people help build it. It gives them the ownership and buy-in that’s necessary to truly make that change.”
“The culture change does absolutely take time,” she added. “You’re trying to build that momentum. It’s slow and steady.”
As part of a past McDonald’s sexual harassment training, Hernandez recalled watching a video and answered multiple-choice questions. “It felt like we were just going through the motions,” she said. Afterward, Hernandez felt that nothing changed in her workplace.
Instead of having speeches or videos that people passively absorb—a hallmark of anti-sexual harassment training in corporate America—Gonzalez Bocinski envisions developing a program that relies on activities like discussions, role-playing, and case studies. This development process may take months, but it’s key to tailoring the trainings to fit the needs of workers on the ground.
“It’s not treating people like children, right?” she said. “We know that people here are adults and they have very real life experiences and that these issues are much more complex than just lecturing at it.”
It’s not yet clear where, exactly, these new programs will start to roll out. But it’s likely that they will take place in locations where Fight for $15 already has a strong presence among McDonald’s workers, such as in California, central Florida, and cities like Kansas City and St. Louis.
McDonald’s said it would not be able to respond to Hernandez’s account without the exact location of the restaurant where she worked. “We’re unable to adequately weigh in on something we don’t have the details on,” a company spokesperson wrote in an email. The company did not respond to a detailed list of questions concerning the rest of this story, despite repeated requests from VICE News.
Although Cervantez, the attorney who’s represented McDonald’s workers, supports developing a worker-led model of sexual violence training, she also wants McDonald’s to enforce accountability, to have actual consequences for harassers and abusers.
“To prevent it from happening, people need to know that it’s gonna be taken seriously,” she said. “I don’t know if workers can do that themselves without the company saying something. They need the company to do something at some point.”
But, she said, these worker-led trainings—and the publicity surrounding them—may finally lead McDonald’s to take real action.
“The company keeps saying they care,” Cervantez said. “If the company really does care, then if the workers come up with something good, they should work with the workers on it, right?”