At first it was verbal abuse: insistent, personal questions from co-workers, like being asked if she was a boy or girl. But on this day, things turned physical.
La’Ray Reed was at her job at McDonald’s in suburban Detroit when she heard her manager’s voice booming through her headset.
“It was saying, you have to feel from the back, you can’t feel from the front,” Reed, a former McDonald’s crew member, recalls. Before Reed knew it, a female co-worker slipped her hand between Reed’s legs from behind and groped her.
“To see if—can I say this?” Reed pauses for a moment in the YouTube video in which she describes the alleged groping. “If I had a penis.”
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Reed is a transgender woman.
The groping incident is one instance in a pattern of “extreme sexual harassment” and on-the-job discrimination that Reed alleges in a civil rights lawsuit filed this month—LGBTQ Pride Month—against the McDonald’s franchise owner and the parent company. The lawsuit charges the store and corporation with violating her civil rights and unlawfully firing her when she complained about ongoing sexual harassment and disparate treatment.
“I am transgender, but I have never dealt with anything like that, especially in the work field,” Reed says. “I mean, of course you get hate from people on the street, but never in a job place.”
Activists say the case is the latest in a string of recent complaints against McDonald’s alleging widespread sexual harassment, abuse, and discrimination against LGBTQ workers at the company.
Reed alleges in court documents that the harassment and discrimination began soon after she was hired in April 2015. Co-workers asked Reed if she was a “boy or girl,” if she was a “top or bottom,” and “what’s your role in the bedroom.” They talked about having sex with her. They demanded, “how big is it?”
Her complaints about the harassment when unheeded, Reed said in the court filing.
In May, when Reed was working at the drive-through window, a store manager shouted, “Boy-slash-girl, step off drive through!” Reed was then assigned to work in the back of the store, according to the lawsuit.
The next month, a co-worker peered through the restroom stall Reed was using. When Reed came out of the restroom, a different manager directed Reed to clean out a dirty bathroom in the back of the store that doubled as a broom closet. Reed was told to stay out of the other restrooms and use the broom closet bathroom from that day forward.
The alleged abuse drove Reed to contemplate suicide.
“I thought I should take a lot of pills, and I could go to sleep and not wake up anymore, and everything would be so much better,” Reed says. “Because then I would not be transgender. I would not have to experience the stuff that I experienced at McDonald’s.”
Reed was ultimately fired after she complained to the store owner and a corporate manager about the alleged discrimination and abuse, according to the lawsuit.
The day Reed was fired, she received a paycheck of 16 cents, according to the lawsuit. A manager said to her in passing, “You think I don’t know what you are because of how you dress and look?”
A spokesperson for McDonald’s Corp. declined to comment on the case, but said in an emailed statement that the company was “committed to the well-being and fair treatment of all people who work in McDonald’s restaurants and discrimination of any kind is completely inconsistent with our values.”
The suit comes amid a rise in hate crimes against LGBTQ people. Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub massacre was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, and 2016 marked the most violent year on record in the LBGTQ community, according to a report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. Meanwhile, legislators in states and cities push to make it a crime for LGBTQ folks to use the bathrooms and facilities where they feel safe and comfortable.
“These folks normally suffer in the shadows for years and years and years,” said Anthony Paris, one of the attorneys at the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice representing Reed. “It’s not a new debate. It’s not a new issue. What is new is there are enough people who have decided to push back, that we’re actually hearing about it in the courts, and in the national and local media.”
Reed asked during her hiring interview how McDonald’s handles LBGTQ issues, Paris said and was told the the corporation was “welcoming and open to all of these issues.” He told Rewire it’s time for the McDonald’s corporation to be held responsible for ignoring allegedly hostile work conditions in owner-run stores.
Activists say a series of EEOC complaints filed last year describe alleged sexual harassment and discrimination at other McDonald’s stores. A Kansas City McDonald’s worker alleged a manager refused to help him find a first aid kit after he was injured on the job, saying, “You are gay and you might have HIV.” A Miami McDonald’s employee, who works at a corporate store, alleged his manager repeatedly harassed him, calling him “cover girl,” saying he “could never have a girlfriend because you like penis,” and once rubbing his genitals against the worker’s buttocks. When the worker requested a transfer, his request was denied and his pay and hours were cut. Meanwhile, a Milwaukee McDonald’s worker alleged ongoing verbal and physical harassment by her managers after they learned she had a girlfriend. One manager allegedly told her she “just hadn’t had the right dick yet.”
To activists, the growing number of allegations against McDonald’s indicate a widespread failure by the corporate parent to enforce the zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment outlined in its Operations and Training and Policies for Franchisees manuals.
The Fight for 15 movement, which is supporting Reed’s suit, contends McDonald’s is paying lip service to LGBTQ equality with rainbow-themed fry boxes and corporate sponsorship of Pride parades, while failing to root out discrimination in its restaurants. The group has launched an online petition demanding a zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment at McDonald’s stores.
“McDonald’s can’t pinkwash its record of harassment and discrimination against LGBTQ workers with a fry box and a parade float,” Jerame Davis, executive director of the advocacy group Pride at Work, said in a statement. “It will take a real commitment to equality and better treatment for its workers to address the horrific allegations in these complaints.”