Survey reveals staggering discrimination and harassment against transgender workers

Kristy Ramirez couldn't find a job because she's transgender. When she was finally hired, she was sexually harassed, and then fired. A national survey reveals her story is way too common in the transgender community.

by Bianca Graulau and America Arias

Looking for work can be challenging under any circumstances, but when you’re transgender, discrimination can make that job hunt close to impossible.

Kristy Ramirez was penniless and out on the street before she could find an employer willing to hire her. When she finally got a job working at a fast-food restaurant, she was forced to use the men’s bathroom.

“I needed the job, so I agreed,” Kristy said. “I told myself, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’ll just go when there’s no one there.”

But as she was washing her hands one day, Kristy says, a man came behind her and tried to sexually assault her. Only then, managers allowed her to use the women’s bathroom, until a female customer went in and saw her.

“She looked me up and down and said, ‘what are you doing here?’” Kristy said. “She said, ‘why do they allow you to use the women’s bathroom?’

The woman demanded Kristy was fired. A week later, Kristy’s boss let her go.

“He knew it was hard for me to find a job,” she said tearing up. “I started thinking ‘Why did I go to the bathroom?’ I regretted going to the bathroom. I regretted being the way I am. I started thinking about changing myself. I don’t know. In that moment, I wanted to die.”

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey reveals Kristy’s story is far from unique. 47 percent of transgender people are either fired, not hired, or denied a promotion because of their gender identity. And a staggering 90 percent, report being harassed at work.

Kristy’s life took a turn when she applied for a job working for a woman who understood her struggles all too well.

“My story is no different than most any other story of transgender people,” Michaela Mendelsohn, the owner of six “El Pollo Loco” franchise restaurants in Southern California, said.

She wants to lessen the challenge for people like her and she started with her own business. Twelve percent of her staff is transgender and she’s trying to get other employers to follow in her footsteps.

Last year, Mendelsohn launched the California Trans Work Project to get restaurants across the country to hire transgender employees. The program works with service industries and chambers of commerce to create entry-level jobs for trans people, and create a pathway to management through education and training. It also offers an incentive. The first 60 hours of a new hire’s wages will be paid through a grant offered by the California Workplace Development Board.

Michaela understands some employers may be reluctant to hire trans employees because they fear backlash from customers. She shared the same concerns at first, but then, she started getting positive feedback from clients.

“We get more compliments on our transgender employees per person than anybody else,” Michaela said.

She says her turnover rate has dropped.

“I’m happier and I feel like I can provide a better service to customers, too,” Marie Angel Hoole, an employee at one of Michaela’s El Pollo Loco restaurants, said.  

And a third of Michaela’s transgender employees have made it to management positions, like Kristy, who says she feels like she can finally be herself and her customers accept her.

“All the clients (ask), ‘where’s the tall one? where’s the blonde girl?’ she said. “All of that makes me feel like everything I went through was worth it because now I’m reaping what I’ve sown.”