Angelica Hernandez has worked at a corporate-owned McDonald’s in California for nearly two decades. In all that time, she’s never received any substantial sexual harassment training. Once, two years ago, she said, she and her coworkers were instructed to watch a video about harassment on tablets, but she found it “ridiculoso.” The situations depicted had no bearing on what things are really like inside a McDonald’s restaurant; instead, the video mostly consisted of blanket statements that employees shouldn’t be harassed.
Robust training, reporting, and enforcement mechanisms could make a big difference to Hernandez, who has faced sexual harassment on the job. “Mi experiencia en McDonald’s no ha sido muy bueno, porque han pasado cosas sexuales,” she said: My experience at McDonald’s has not been good, because I’ve experienced sexual harassment. “Es triste,” she said. It’s sad.
That was supposed to change by January of this year. For years, the company has faced a barrage of lawsuits and bad press over how it’s handled sexual harassment in its stores. Then, at the end of 2019, former CEO Steve Easterbrook was ousted after acknowledging that he’d had a sexual relationship with an employee. It was later uncovered that he’d also had relations with three other employees.
In response to all of that pressure, McDonald’s announced in April 2021 that it would implement new global brand standards “aimed at furthering a culture of physical and psychological safety for employees and customers through the prevention of violence, harassment and discrimination.” For the first time, the company said that it would require all locations, both corporate-owned and franchised, to implement policies and trainings to combat sexual harassment, as well as reporting processes and annual employee and manager surveys, and that starting in January 2022 all locations would be “assessed and held accountable” to the new standards.
But as of January of this year, Hernandez and two other current employees in different states told The Nation they haven’t seen any new sexual harassment policies or trainings implemented in their stores.
“McDonald’s said they were going to do a training for us in January. It’s February, and they still haven’t done the training,” Hernandez said through a translator. “They make a lot of promises, but when it comes to their workers, they don’t follow through.”
When asked to produce the new standards and provide information about how they’re being implemented, a McDonald’s spokesperson pointed to a website outlining global brand standards that copy much of the language of April’s press release. The standards, it says, apply to all stores, and require them to implement procedures for reporting incidents of sexual harassment and workplace violence, as well as “policy and training” to prevent harassment and discrimination and mitigate violence. Stores are also supposed to conduct an annual survey of employees and managers “with an accompanying action plan.” The company now says all restaurants “will be assessed and held accountable [to the standards] starting in 2022,” and a spokesperson said that the standards were effective as of January 1. The company has a “suite of policies, tools, trainings, and reporting mechanism” to ensure implementation of the standards, according to a spokesperson, but the company declined to share or elaborate on them with The Nation.
The spokesperson also said that the company spent “the last several months listening to crew and franchisees” to inform the standards. But women who have spoken up about harassment through protests, strikes, and lawsuits say they were not involved—one of their key demands.
“McDonald’s has been clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated,” the spokesperson said. “Everyone who works under the Arches should be able to confidently show up to work each day in a place that is safe, respectful and inclusive.”
If the new standards were enforced with robust trainings and accountability measures, they would represent a real step forward toward protecting McDonald’s employees from sexual harassment, according to those who have been pushing McDonald’s to do more to respond to sexual harassment in its stores. But it’s unclear how they’re being put into effect, if at all. “To our eyes, this is just another press release listing just another bunch of platitudes,” said Gillian Thomas, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project who represents some of the women suing McDonald’s over sexual harassment. “It is virtually indistinguishable from other statements released over the years, albeit with words like ‘requirements’ and ‘accountability’ now inserted here and there.”
The company’s announcement last April “did look like a real step forward,” Thomas said. But so far there has been no evidence that the company is making substantive changes. “What is the company actually going to do to make these standards have any effect in practice?” Thomas asked. The company didn’t respond to a request from The Nation to share more about the “policies, tools, trainings, and reporting mechanisms” it says it is uses to implement the new standards, nor to explain how it will assess and hold restaurants accountable, what the penalties will be for failing to follow the standards, how it will ensure that employees are aware of them, what kind of sexual harassment trainings it will deem adequate to fulfill the standards, nor how it will ensure that people who report harassment will have their complaints investigated and won’t be retaliated against.
A video training like the kind Hernandez had to complete “is not going to move the needle at all,” said Eve Cervantez, an attorney at Altshuler Berzon who is also representing women suing McDonald’s. To make training stick, it has to be interactive, deal with scenarios that are relevant to the actual workplace involved, and be taken seriously and regularly reinforced by store managers. “We definitely have heard from clients about managers pressing the start button and rolling their eyes,” Cervantez said. “That kind of thing is guaranteed to be sending the opposite message.” It also helps to have workers and managers discuss the training and even be directly involved in it. “If it’s a one-time-only, sit down look at this thing, check a box—forget it,” she said.
Workers also need to believe that if they report sexual harassment, it will be taken seriously and acted upon without backfiring on them. That can help prevent harassment in the first place by putting abusers on notice. At many McDonald’s stores, the opposite atmosphere prevails. When Hernandez and I spoke in early February, she told me that just a few days earlier, after some coworkers who had gotten Covid said they were losing their hair, another responded, “Imagine what we’re going to be like when we lose all of our hair down there,” referring to their genitals.
“Yo me sentí incomoda,” she said: it made me feel uncomfortable. But her coworkers just laughed.
It was just one in a series of bad experiences she has had. Coworkers put bananas in their mouths and make sexual comments. A manager once showed her a picture of a man’s genitals and told her she wanted something large like that. “It made me feel very uncomfortable, because I go to work to work, not to be exposed to things like that,” she said through an interpreter. It’s impacted her emotionally, to the point that her three children have noticed changes in her mood at home. She’s felt uncomfortable going to work. When one of her sons asked her to get him a job at McDonald’s, she refused, hoping to spare him the same experiences.
When she reported one of the incidents, she said, her manager just laughed at her, and then reduced the hours and days she was scheduled to work. She said that when she told someone in corporate human relations, nothing was done. “No se preocupan a que está pasando con sus trabajadores,” she said: They don’t care what’s happening with their employees.
Hernadez’s experience is not unique. In 2020, The Nation reviewed 24 legal complaints and spoke to over a half dozen women who had been harassed at McDonald’s, ranging in age from teenagers to women in their 40s, to uncover a deep-seated, widespread problem of sexual harassment at the fast-food giant. Most of the victims underwent verbal abuse, while many were also physically assaulted. Male coworkers grabbed or pinched their buttocks, groped their breasts or groins, and touched their hair and shoulders. One described a male coworker forcing her into a bathroom stall, dropping his pants, and taking out his penis, only leaving when a manager called him. A survey of 782 female McDonald’s employees in early 2020 found that three-quarters said they’d experienced sexual harassment on the job.
Thomas and Cervantez argue that it’s not impossible to fix the problem, but it does require more robust action than what the company has done so far. McDonald’s would have to develop clear standards for what is and isn’t acceptable behavior in the workplace, effective trainings on those standards, clear reporting channels, and a believable promise that reports of sexual harassment will be taken seriously and acted upon without retaliation against the victim. It would need to implement a set of metrics for franchisees to meet, a way to assess which ones are and aren’t complying, and penalties for those that don’t. It needs a way to measure whether stores are free of harassment, such as keeping track of how many complaints are lodged, what happened with those complaints, how many were substantiated, and what the repercussions were for the harassing employee or customer. Regular “climate” surveys of employees to find out what’s happening in the workplace—and whether anti-harassment policies are working on the ground—are important if the results are incorporated into action plans afterward. But, despite the promises it made in April 2021, few of these steps appear to have been taken.
“Addressing sexual harassment, it’s not rocket science,” Thomas said. “But it does take some expertise and training and resources.”
Kiara Sotelo started working at a corporate-owned McDonald’s in Chicago, Illinois, a year ago, but she didn’t receive any sexual harassment training, she said. She was shown how to take orders, make the food, and keep things clean. The only thing she was told related to sexual harassment was not to touch her coworkers and to keep her distance from them, but that was mostly due to the pandemic, she said. She said she hasn’t been given any sexual harassment training since.
In mid-January, she and her coworkers were given a survey with questions that asked if they had ever been sexually harassed by a coworker or a customer and whether they had witnessed any incidents they hadn’t reported yet, she said. Sotelo felt comfortable filling it out, but some of her coworkers told her they were too afraid to do it, especially because their managers didn’t explain what would be done with the results.
For years, in response to lawsuits claiming that the company hasn’t done enough to prevent sexual harassment in its stores, McDonald’s has responded that it’s not directly responsible for what happens inside franchised locations. Now it’s promised to enforce standards on its franchisees.
But there haven’t been any new sexual harassment policies or trainings at Rita Blalock’s franchise-owned store in Raleigh, N.C., she said. In the 10 years she’s worked at McDonald’s at two different locations in the area, she’s never been given sexual harassment training, she said, and that didn’t change over the last year. She hasn’t seen anything posted about what to do if she were to be sexually harassed and hasn’t been asked to take a survey.
“It’s like a conversation that’s hush-hush,” she said.