Restaurateur leads the charge to protect trans employees from workplace discrimination

Restaurateur leads the charge to protect trans employees from workplace discrimination

The customer is always right, except if they're harassing a transgender restaurant employee. 

That's the ethos of Michaela Mendelsohn, a trans woman, trans activist and owner of six El Pollo Loco restaurants in Southern California, Southern California public radio station KPCC reported. 

Mendelsohn ensures all her employees (roughly 8% to 10% of her 150 employees are trans) feel supported, no matter what customers may say, and she's been the impetus behind the new California Transgender Workplace Project, the nation's largest program to help transgender people find and keep jobs. 

Standard fare at Pollo Loco.  Pollo Loco/Facebook

Transgender people face significant workplace discrimination 

Unemployment among transgender individuals is 14%, twice the rate of the general population, Heron Greenesmith, LGBT movement and policy analyst at the Movement Advancement Project, said in an email. 

Blame it on discrimination and bias, not competency. 

"In a study conducted by the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights, employers favored less qualified candidates over qualified transgender candidates in nearly half (48%) of cases," Greenesmith said. 

And once they're hired, trans employees still might face hardship. Mendelsohn noted that her first trans employee, a trans woman, told Mendelsohn that at a previous job, she was "forced to use the men's restroom, though she clearly identified and presented herself as a woman," Mendelsohn said in an email. 

"She was sexually molested in the men's room," Mendelsohn said, explaining the woman was then given access to the women's bathroom, but only if it was empty. When the woman's husband complained to management, the company fired the employee on the spot, Mendelsohn said. 

"It was't until [El Pollo Loco] hired our first transgender employee (over four years ago) that I fully realized how lucky I was to have transitioned as the owner of my own company," Mendelsohn said. The businesswoman opened her first restaurant in 1988, and quietly took a year off to transition in 2005, she told KPCC.

As a restaurant owner, Mendelsohn was in a privileged position and did not experience significant intolerance after her transition in her professional life, and now she's working to pay it forward. She's wanted to help establish a trans work program for four years now. "Until I could hire enough trans employees over a period of years, I wasn't ready to promote it to other businesses," she said in an email. But now, the time is right for her to champion trans employment. 

The California Transgender Workplace Project

The project will place unemployed trans people into entry-level jobs at restaurants across California, and it encourages managers to hire trans employees by paying for the first 60 hours of a new hire's salary. (A $150,000 grant from the California Workforce Development Board covers this cost.) Roughly 1% of California adults are transgender, according to an estimate from the Williams Institute, a UCLA-affiliated think tank investigating sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy. Mendelsohn estimates that this translates to 220,000 transgender adults (people older than 18 years old) in the state. 

"We have yet to find anything quite like it anywhere in the U.S," Mendelsohn said, noting that some parts of the program are already being done at the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the San Francisco LGBT Center. 

Hiring and keeping trans employees requires a multifaceted approach. Inclusive bathroom and dress code policies are essential, as is learning what to ask (pronoun preference) and what not to ask (details about surgeries, sexual orientation, sex life), Mendelsohn said. The California Transgender Workplace Project is producing a management training video that highlights these issues. 

Inclusive bathroom policies are essential for a productive, non-discriminatory work environment.  Mark Ralston/Getty Images

At El Pollo Loco, management has adjusted its handbook to reflect diversity-friendly policies. "Our job applications have a place for the person's "preferred name" and pronoun in the case that they have not yet legally changed their name and legal documents," she said. The process has been smooth and the reaction has been "remarkably" supportive, Mendelsohn said. "I realize this is in part because the attitude and policies of acceptance come 'from the top down.' But this is true of all businesses," she said. 

She's found that trans employees who can be "their 'authentic' selves" thrive when interacting with customers. Other employees "have not only welcomed them, but appreciate working for a company with positive values," she said. 

One significant advantage to hiring trans employees and accepting them? Lower turnover, Mendelsohn said. Trans employees at El Pollo Loco "are so appreciative about being on "a level playing field" for possibly the first time in their work lives."