Amid McDonald's strike, fast-food workers often vulnerable to sexual harassment

Protesters demonstrate outside of a McDonald's restaurant near Times Square after charges were brought against the company that they have ignored serious instances of sexual harassment on October 6, 2016 in New York City. 
Spencer Platt | Getty Images
Protesters demonstrate outside of a McDonald's restaurant near Times Square after charges were brought against the company that they have ignored serious instances of sexual harassment on October 6, 2016 in New York City. 

Mario Batali and John Besh are just some of the chefs no longer at their elegant eateries due to sexual harassment allegations, but mistreatment of restaurant workers isn't limited to those approaching Michelin-star territory.

Fast-food staffers also are vulnerable to unwanted physical advances, lurid comments, graphic pictures and gestures as they do everything from flip burgers and brew coffee.

McDonald's workers in 10 cities across the U.S. are scheduled to strike to protest sexual harassment on Tuesday, right before the anniversary of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein's downfall, which crystallized the #MeToo movement.

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Forty percent of female fast-food workers have been sexually harassed on the job, according to the Washington, D.C. firm Hart Research Associates. Most affected are African-American and Latina women.

Life in the drive-thru lane can be very different from that at more high-end restaurants, and many of the factors that are so culturally associated with fast-food joints are what make them places where harassment festers.

Here are four of the biggest:

First jobs

The fast-food industry prides itself as providing many Americans' first jobs, but people new to the work world don't always know how they should – or shouldn't – be treated by both bosses and co-workers.

"Often times, they aren't sure if the behavior is OK or not because these are not discussions we have at school," said C. Vaile Wright, a Washington, D.C.-based psychologist. "It's not stuff we learn, and if you come into a first job and this is the culture you see, you might not know that's inappropriate."

Age

With youth comes fresh experiences – in this case, life with a paycheck.

The fast-food industry is teeming with teens and people barely older. Throw in some youthful pride masking as invincibility, the fun of a new environment free of parents and teachers and a dash of hormones.

That may quickly become a recipe for real trouble.

"It's the most vulnerable demographic – the youngest, least sophisticated about knowing what their rights are, the least empowered," said Janine Yancey, CEO of Emtrain, a San Francisco company that does online sexual harassment training. "You're left with an environment that's a vacuum, and whatever bad actors happen to be present in that particular situation will rule the day."

More than 76 percent of women ages 18 to 24 and an estimated 35 percent of men in that age group report that they've been sexually harassed, according to research by Stop Street Harassment, a Reston, Virginia-based not-for-profit dedicated to safe public spaces.

Vulnerability

Young people have limited job options, especially those balancing work with school. Some adults may have few of the skills needed to find employment in other fields. Regardless of age, if you need a job badly – whether you're earning for textbooks or to support a family – fear of reprisals for reporting sexual harassment may keep you in check.

"If I report, will things get worse and will I lose my job? These are real considerations that could make it harder, if you don't have the means to find another job," Wright said. "Do I just stick it out?"

If a worker is in the U.S. illegally, which may be more likely in a mom-and-pop fast-food joint than a corporate chain, concerns about retaliation are even greater, Yancey explained.

Ill-prepared – and often male – managers

The managers themselves may not be fully aware of what's considered sexual harassment.

In part, that's due to the youth and corporate inexperience of the managers. In many cases, it's young twentysomethings overseeing teenagers. In that vacuum, an imbalance can quickly become toxic.

"When you have a large power differential, even when it's a manager not earning a CEO's salary and teenagers and young people for whom this might be their first job, this is a factor," said Merrick Rossein, a professor at the City University of New York Law School. "The intersectionality of race and gender often come into play, and women of color are targeted for even more harassment."

That the managerial level in the fast-food industry is heavily male doesn't help. These bosses can lord their position over female charges – or look the other way when male underlings behave in sexually aggressive ways.

Plus, the managers may not be well prepared for their jobs. A chain restaurant might not provide adequate training about sexual harassment – how to prevent, how to identify it and how to implement consequences when someone breaks the rules.

"Because the business has lower margins, they are investing less in operations, which would include tools and strategies that can be used to create a safe environment," Yancey said.

She suggested two remedies – sessions for staffers that educate them about sexual harassment and access to a human-resources professional out in the field.