McDonald’s says that it has created “America’s best first job.” That’s not the way Latarsha Smith describes it. The South Carolina woman says that when she entered a management-training program at a McDonald’s in December 2017, she expected a promotion and a raise. But after a co-worker sexually harassed her, her professional goals took a sharp detour. The harassment became more and more aggressive, and more difficult to evade. The co-worker allegedly touched her rear end, tried to get her to come to his house, and sent her graphic, sexual texts. At one point, he asked her to send him a photo of her chest. “Try it,” he wrote. “And then let’s text about it and see how wet you get.”
“I felt disrespected. I just felt so emotional, I cried. I was depressed,” Smith told New York on Monday. She rebuffed the co-worker repeatedly — and eventually, she says, he began to retaliate. Smith says he told her that managers in training must work weekends, though that didn’t appear true of others in the program, and she’d been clear from the start that she was unavailable then due to family obligations. Soon enough, he’d forced her out of the program altogether, which cost her that promotion and a raise that she needed. After some deliberation, she told her family what had happened to her, and reported her experiences up the chain of management — only to be transferred to a new store, where she was scheduled for fewer hours. “I went through a depression,” Smith says, of the aftermath. “I started losing my hair and started getting sick. I have been going to the hospital with severe headaches … I have a daughter that’s in college and I wasn’t able to support her like I was when I was given hours and I was in a management program.” She couldn’t support her grandson, she added, or her sick mother.
Smith believes she completed the management-training program; she says at the end of the process, she was told she’d need to take another eight-hour class in the state capital, though that didn’t seem to be a requirement for other managers. After a year and a half working for McDonald’s, she was fired.
On Tuesday, Smith became one of 25 workers to announce sexual-harassment complaints against McDonald’s. It’s the third such round of complaints filed by the Fight for $15 campaign with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission since 2016, and the second time that the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which grew out of the #MeToo movement, has participated in the effort. Tuesday’s complaints also mark an escalation in Fight for $15’s efforts to end sexual harassment in McDonald’s restaurants. In addition to the new charges, the coalition announced that workers in three cities had filed civil suits against the fast-food giant. Workers in two additional cities, who had previously filed complaints against McDonald’s, have progressed to filing lawsuits with the assistance of the ACLU.
But the obstacles to change are significant. Tuesday’s complaints not only challenge McDonald’s image, but also its business model. Without significant reforms to the company’s labor practices, activists say that workers like Smith have little recourse when they’re abused on the job. Fight for $15 has successfully pressured the corporation to change its policies in the past. In March, McDonald’s announced it would no longer lobby against laws to increase the minimum wage. Though that isn’t an endorsement of a higher minimum wage, it’s still a meaningful shift in the company’s posture.
On sexual harassment, however, workers and their allies say the corporation has done little to address their long-standing concerns. Smith, for example, says that no one spoke to her about sexual harassment or informed her about any policies when she began working for McDonald’s. When she did try to report her experiences — first to management, and then to a corporate human resources hotline — her situation didn’t improve. In a press release issued by Fight for $15, other workers say they have experienced groping, attempted rape, and indecent exposure from co-workers. A Durham, North Carolina, woman says a co-worker exposed himself to her in a walk-in freezer and then tried to “pin her down.” In Arizona, an adult male reportedly harassed a 16-year-old employee and retaliated against her when she rejected him. When her mother, who also worked for the store, tried to intervene, her hours were cut.
Smith will join other workers and Top Chef star Padma Lakshmi at a rally in Chicago on Tuesday. They’re asking McDonald’s to sit down with them to discuss new strategies for ending sexual harassment at work.
But it’s not clear whether the company will agree to do so. In a letter to Lakshmi, shared with New York by McDonald’s, the fast-food chain said that it had partnered with the Rape, Abuse, and Incest Network to provide “employee-centered education” to workers, and that RAINN had “facilitated conversations with Futures without Violence and the American Association of University Women on the topic.” The letter also asserts that 90 percent of the corporation’s operators and general managers have undergone a new sexual harassment training, and points to a new corporate hotline as proof of its commitment. It also says that it has produced new posters outlining the rights of its workers, and shipped them to its 14,000 restaurants. “In the next two months, McDonald’s and RAINN will facilitate additional conversations with U.S. restaurant employees and other relevant external stakeholder groups to help inform and further strengthen our policy and trainings,” it added. The letter does not specify which employees will be involved in those additional conversations. In a press release, Gillian Thomas of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project said that most of their clients “allege harassment occurring precisely when the company claims it was making these reforms, and we can find no one who has heard of a new policy or training initiative.”
Further reform may be difficult thanks to the company’s franchise model. Around 90 to 95 percent of the company’s stores are franchises, and in its letter to Lakshmi, McDonald’s says it has “encouraged” franchise owners to implement its new policy. It can’t force them to do so without further changes to federal labor policy, and McDonald’s opposes reforms that would make it liable for the actions of its franchise owners. (In this, it has a powerful ally in the Trump administration.) A spokesperson for McDonald’s confirmed to New York on Tuesday that the company has not changed its position.
The gap between corporate policy and franchise practice can be dangerous for workers like Smith, advocates say. Mary Joyce Carlson, an attorney who works with the Fight For 15 campaign, told New York that at McDonald’s and low-wage workplaces like it, “it’s not made clear to [workers] that this is a workplace where you’re entitled to be safe.”
“This is a workplace that I think calls out for a union. I think all workers should have the right to unionize, particularly in a work setting like this,” Carlson added. That is, in fact, the other half of the Fight for $15 campaign’s principle demand — a higher wage, and a union. Some McDonald’s workers in other countries are unionized, but workers in the chain’s American locations are not, though the Service Employees International Union works with Fight for $15 campaigners. The franchise model, again, looks like an obstacle. As matters stand right now, the SEIU or another union would have to individually organize each of the company’s franchise locations — a Herculean undertaking that would not result in a corporation-wide contract that provided identical and universal protections to all of the company’s rank-and-file workers.
For workers, protest and public shaming may be the most direct route to change. Smith said she gave the company a chance to investigate, but its inaction inspired her to go public with her story. “I have been working with you guys,” she said. “It’s like y’all are brushing this under the rug like it never happened. So I said, no, it’s not going to happen anymore. I will not allow this to happen to anybody else.”
This post has been updated to clarify the circumstances of Latarsha Smith’s time in the management-training program.