Austinites Join Nationwide Protest of Sexual Harassment in Fast-Food Industry
Amanda Healy got her first job the day she turned 15.
She said she grew up “sheltered” in a suburban area of North Texas, and was excited to begin working at a local buffet-style pizza restaurant. But within her first few weeks on the job, Healy said she became the victim of sexual harassment at the hands of a 45-year-old manager.
“I was icing a dessert at 15, freshly 15, and he’s like, ’Oh, I bet you like squeezing white stuff out of tubes, don’t you?’” Healy recalled. “I was so shocked I didn’t even immediately start crying.”
On Thursday, Healy joined about a dozen others at a rally in Austin to call attention to a recent national survey showing that 40 percent of female fast-food workers reported being sexually harassed on the job. The rally outside the McDonald’s at Barton Springs Road and Lamar Boulevard was one of dozens organized across the country by Fight for 15, the group best known for its work to increase the minimum wage.
“I want to help raise awareness with younger people going into the workforce, that this is a reality,” said Healy, now 24 and living in Austin. “It doesn’t always come off as an aggressive attack, like someone slaps your ass. Most of the time, it’s in the form of a joke.”
Healy said the sexual harassment continued over seven months until she finally reported it to her parents, who forced her to quit and contacted the pizza chain’s corporate offices. She said she’s unsure what happened to the manager, but he no longer works at the restaurant.
“It’s OK to speak out, and you should speak out,” Healy said. “It happens more often than it’s reported, and it’s unacceptable.”
The survey, conducted by Hart Research Associates on behalf of three women’s advocacy groups, found that of the two in five female fast-food workers who reported being sexually harassed, 42 percent felt forced to accept it because they didn’t want to lose their jobs.
Fight For 15 picked McDonald’s franchises for Thursday’s protests in part because activists have helped file 15 sexual harassment complaints against the corporation and its franchisees in the last month. But Lisa Anderson of Moroch Partners in Austin, a public relations firm that represents local McDonald’s franchises, pointed out that none of those complaints was filed in Texas.
“Our owners would never be OK with anything like that happening,” Anderson said as she looked on during Thursday’s rally. “Any reports like that would be handled immediately.”
Aaron Johnson, an attorney with the Texas nonprofit law firm Equal Justice Center who participated in the rally, said regardless of whether there have been local complaints, McDonald’s is failing to enforce its zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment.
Johnson said when complaints are filed, McDonald’s typically tries to distance itself from accused franchisees. But he added that the problem goes beyond McDonald’s, calling sexual harassment “pervasive” in the fast-food industry and saying he wasn’t at all surprised by the survey results.
“We’re talking to workers every day who are calling us confidentially, and the majority of those workers aren’t filing lawsuits,” Johnson said. “Imagine you’re a single mother in a precarious situation, living paycheck to paycheck. Losing that job, that just devastates you. And you know that if you report your boss for sexually harassing you, you know there’s going to be retaliation, and it happens every day.”