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Low-wage fast-food workers, sexual harassment and the #MeToo era: One woman's story

A McDonald's employee holds a sign during a protest against sexual harassment in the workplace on Sept. 18, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.(Joshua Lott/AFP via Getty Images)
A McDonald's employee holds a sign during a protest against sexual harassment in the workplace on Sept. 18, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.(Joshua Lott/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault and harassment.

Five years ago, #MeToo dominated social media as sexual abuse accusations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein began to surface. And it didn’t stop there; men in the spotlight from Louis C.K. to Matt Lauer came under fire for sexual assault and harassment.

Hollywood isn’t the only place the #MeToo reckoning took hold. Women in workplaces across industries spoke out against unfair treatment, mainly committed by men in positions of power.

One such woman is Jamelia Fairley, who worked at a McDonald’s in Florida. And now, she’s a plaintiff in a class action suit against the restaurant chain alongside some 5,000 other women from more than 100 McDonald’s locations across the state.

Fairley describes another employee calling her rude names and groping her multiple times while at work. So she made the tough choice faced by many victims of sexual assault or harassment to report the incident. But that didn’t change anything.

“It continued to happen and nothing was done about it,” she says. “I was working with this person on shifts. They never changed a shift.”

After the employee made a comment to Fairley about her daughter, she went to higher-ups at her store again. The employee was never fired, just transferred to another location. He continued to visit the restaurant Fairley worked at and make inappropriate remarks while she worked.

Fairley notes how hard it is for workers in her position to come forward about workplace abuse because management often retaliates against them.

“They were questioning me about why I made my reports on the people who harassed me. They threatened to write up on me for no reason because I’m a great worker,” Fairley says. “They also cut my hours.”

Fairley’s story is unfortunately not unique, according to Eve Cervantes, the lead attorney in the lawsuit against McDonald’s.

“This is the same thing that we’re hearing from numerous women,” Cervantes says, “which is why we brought the lawsuit.”

Still, Fairley says she doesn’t regret reporting her experience and getting involved with the lawsuit.

“I just feel like people shouldn’t keep silent. They should speak up about their experience because if they continue to be silent, nothing’s going to happen, it’s going to continue to go on,” she says. “They have people that believe in them and will fight with them by their side and let them be heard.”

Cervantes took on the case to fight for women in positions like Fairley. The attorney says the number of stories she’s heard that mirror Fairley’s in terms of women reporting harassment and a transfer — if anything — being the only course of action for the perpetrator leads her to believe it is a systemic issue at McDonald’s.

“People often used to think about this as a kind of a one bad apple problem,” Cervantes says. “There was this one bad harasser out there, and if only we hadn’t hired him or if only we got rid of him, that would solve the problem. But that’s not really the issue.”

Low-wage, hourly workers are seen by many executives as replaceable. Cervantes says this contributes to a workplace culture that allows harassment to flourish.

“More low-wage workers cannot afford to be without their job,” she says. “They can’t quit their job because of the harassment and wait around a few weeks or months to find another job. They need every single paycheck. They can’t quit. They have to put up with it if the company doesn’t stop it.”

Aside from making their jobs more difficult, harassment like this takes a personal toll on those who experience it. They can suffer severe emotional distress, but for low-wage workers, they often do not have the financial means to seek counseling or therapy to work through it.

However, as more and more people come forward, Cervantes sees progress being made in empowering others to speak out.

“There is a certain amount of healing that comes from being heard and being listened to,” she says, “even if it’s not being listened to or heard by your employer.”

A statement from McDonald’s:

“Discrimination and sexual harassment are abhorrent in any form and have no place in our society, and they are not acceptable in any McDonald’s-brand restaurant. That’s why we announced our Global Brand Standards last year, which apply to all company-owned and franchised restaurants worldwide. As part of these new Global Brand Standards, all restaurants must maintain policies and trainings aimed at preventing harassment, discrimination and retaliation and implement clear procedures for employees to report any concerns, effective January 1, 2022.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.