I Was Sexually Harassed as a Teen at McDonald's. It's Got to Stop | Opinion

McDonald's is under fire for workplace sexual harassment—again. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a lawsuit against a McDonald's franchise owner, alleging that workers at 22 McDonald's stores, some of them teenagers, were subjected to "constant groping," offensive comments about male genitalia, and sexual intimidation. The suit comes just weeks after reports that a McDonald's manager had raped a 14-year-old McDonald's worker in Pittsburgh after regularly harassing her. It turned out he was a registered sex offender.

When I see these stories, I'm horrified. But I'm not surprised. Because in them, I see echoes of my own.

As a sophomore in high school working at McDonald's, almost every day I had to contend with a maintenance worker in his 20s who regularly harassed me. "If I grabbed your butt, what would you do?" he whispered while I was taking orders during the dinner rush. "Dang baby, you look good today," he'd greet me, blowing me kisses. Worst of all, he'd corner me in enclosed spaces and physically intimidate me. He was nine inches taller than me and many years older. And I was still a minor. As he leered down at me, I felt scared he would assault me.

As far too many young women who work at McDonald's know, these experiences are not unusual. Sexual harassment is a fact of life at McDonald's stores across the country—and even across the globe. While the company claims it's addressing the problem, little has changed for frontline workers.

Teenage workers like myself and the young women from recent news stories are especially vulnerable. McDonald's likes to say it's "America's best first job," but any decent first job should ensure all workers, especially underage girls, are safe from sexual harassment and intimidation.

It's long past time for McDonald's to step up and truly listen to workers like me, who have been forced to put up with disgusting and traumatizing behavior while we're just trying to support ourselves.

A McDonald's sign is shown on July 28, 2021 in Houston, Texas. McDonald's Corp. announced that sales are surpassing pre-pandemic levels across the world as more of its dining rooms reopen after being shutdown during the pandemic. The company has also said that menu-price increases, larger to-go orders and its new crispy chicken sandwiches have largely contributed to boosted sales across the U.S. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

I began working at McDonald's in August 2018, nearly a year after the #MeToo movement sparked a national conversation about workplace sexual harassment. But I don't remember receiving any training from McDonald's about sexual harassment or how to report it. So when I started getting harassed, I didn't know what to do. The first time my harasser made overtly sexual comments to me, it was during the dinner rush. He stood behind me and lingered, whispering so only I could hear: "If I touched you, what would you do?"

Although I didn't receive anti-harassment training, I remembered from my orientation that crew members should talk to managers about any problems that come up. So later during that shift, I went to my shift manager to let her know what happened. I know she heard me, but she didn't respond. Her lack of response made me feel like my experience—the harassment and my attempt to report it—didn't matter.

One of the most important things for people to understand is that at McDonald's, there's a wide gap between words and action. McDonald's might say it has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment. But that isn't really true because we don't know who is responsible for investigating complaints raised by workers, and we don't know the consequences for failing to address them.

At my store alone, I wasn't the only women subjected to sexual harassment. The maintenance worker made sexually explicit comments to other women at the store too. There was also another man—the assistant manager of the store—who called me "baby girl" instead of my name, and he'd squeeze and caress my shoulders when he talked to me. He did this to most of the women who worked there. Women complained, but nothing ever changed.

This man was an assistant manager for more than 13 years. Where were his consequences? How could I trust that McDonald's would take my complaints seriously when he was in charge?

It's completely unacceptable that one of the biggest and most iconic employers in the world is letting rampant harassment slide while countless women, including teenage girls, have to navigate being hit on, groped, and cornered. This company, which brings in billions in profit every year, can afford to implement real, enforceable policies to stamp out its system-wide harassment problem.

Women like me have been raising our voices about McDonald's sexual harassment problem for years. I filed a complaint with the EEOC and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights over my experience. Many others have done the same and more, leading protests and even strikes. The company has responded in word, but not in deed.

It's long past time for real change, and that starts with sitting down with workers like me and hearing us out.

McDonald's, are you listening?

Cyriah Blackman is a former teenage McDonald's worker and a leader in the Fight for $15 and a Union in Missouri.

The views in this article are the writer's own.