I Was Sexually Harassed at McDonald’s. Now I Know Why McDonald’s Ignored My Complaints.

As McDonald’s shareholders gather for their annual meeting, we’re calling on the company to, once and for all, address sexual harassment in its restaurants across the country.

On Wednesday, McDonald’s workers in 16 cities went on strike for a $15 minimum wage. On Thursday, McDonald’s holds its annual shareholder meeting. (Fibonacci Blue / Flickr)

“Your lips look so juicy and wet.” “You would look nice on top of me.” 

My first job at McDonald’s, when I was just 17 years old, left me humiliated and traumatized. Two separate male coworkers—a crew member and a shift manager—targeted me with vulgar comments and unwanted sexual advances. On one occasion, I asked the crew member if he could make me a McChicken sandwich. He responded, “I got your McChicken right here,” grabbing his genitals. 

I did my best to brush off these comments and walk away. Because I was new on the job, I was afraid to report the harassment to management. It didn’t help that the general manager once witnessed it firsthand and just stood by, laughing.

When the harassment started coming from a shift manager, who was responsible for staffing and wrote people up for disciplinary issues, I felt all I could do was avoid it. I tried to switch shifts to distance myself from the manager in question, but two weeks later I got put back on the schedule with him. He implied that he’d requested me back on his shift, and his comments became even more explicit and aggressive. When he put his hands on me, grabbing my breasts while I was working, I felt sick to my stomach. It felt so unsafe, humiliating, and disgusting, I felt I had no choice but to quit. I couldn’t handle the harassment anymore.

Sometimes people hear my story and assume this was an issue of one bad apple—one bad McDonald’s store, one bad manager. But that’s not the case. McDonald’s has a widespread sexual harassment problem, from the C-suite to the drive-thru. 

For five years, workers like me, who are survivors of workplace sexual harassment at McDonald’s, have taken action. We’ve filed more than 50 complaints and lawsuits, detailing our experiences and calling on McDonald’s to let us lead on a real solution. We’ve opened up a new front in the #MeToo movement by telling our stories on national television and waging a nationwide one-day strike—the first over harassment in over 100 years. We even marched on company executives while they presented at business conferences. 

We did everything we could think of. And, still, company executives refused to meet with us to hear our stories and ideas for solutions to McDonald’s systemic harassment problem. Eventually, it became clear why McDonald’s wasn’t going to listen to us. 

In 2019, McDonald’s fired its former CEO, Steve Easterbrook, over a sexual relationship with a subordinate employee, which was against company policy. The board of directors fired him “without cause,” which meant he got to walk away with a $56 million exit package. (Compare that to cooks and cashiers like me, who are forced to quit their jobs at McDonald’s, despite desperately needing the paychecks, because we no longer feel safe at work. We walk away with nothing.)

It gets worse. McDonald’s is now trying to recoup that golden parachute, alleging the board didn’t know at the time that Easterbrook had engaged in additional sexual relationships with subordinates. But a lawsuit from a union pension fund filed last month alleges the board knew about Easterbrook’s multiple inappropriate sexual relationships with subordinates. McDonald’s board tried to “whitewash” Easterbrook’s misconduct, according to the lawsuit.

This, the lawsuit says, “is the result of the Board’s own indifference to executive misconduct and its deliberate attempt to try to cover up its own role in failing to stop this misconduct.”

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The lawsuit also notes that workers like me in the Fight for $15 and a Union have spent years organizing to hold McDonald’s accountable for widespread sexual harassment in stores. “The Board’s lackadaisical attitude to these chronic issues at its restaurants demonstrates that its generous treatment of Easterbrook was no one-off anomaly,” the suit says. “Instead, it represents the highest-profile example of the Board’s companywide, dismissive approach to sexual misconduct—whether in its own C-suite, or at its restaurants.” 

Now after years of filing complaints, marching in the streets and telling our stories, it’s obvious why we never had any chance of being heard at McDonald’s. Those at the top who were tasked with hearing our complaints were either engaging in sexual misconduct or busy covering it up

Before all of this happened to me, I never gave it a single thought about who sat on McDonald’s board. It never occurred to me that, as a frontline worker, I should care. 

But my experience at McDonald’s has taught me the culture is created at the top. Maybe if McDonald’s higher-ups weren’t so busy condoning harassment in the C-suite, they’d have listened to workers like me when we sounded alarms about unacceptable behavior behind their counters. We’ve worked so hard for a company that’s done little to protect us; McDonald’s forced us to deal with disgusting behavior that has no place in any workplace. 

Now, as McDonald’s shareholders gather for their annual meeting, we’re calling on the company to, once and for all, address sexual harassment in its restaurants across the country. We won’t rest until McDonald’s leadership commits to a real overhaul that starts with listening to workers like me. For years, we’ve been trying everything we can think of to get their attention and affect change for a safe and equitable workplace.

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Barbara Johnson is a former McDonald’s worker and leader in the Fight for $15 and a Union.