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El Pollo Loco franchisee takes on transgender mission

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Michaela Mendelsohn, founder of the California Transgender Workplace Project

Michaela Mendelsohn is a longtime El Pollo Loco franchise operator and CEO of Pollo West Corp., with six restaurants in Southern California. She’s also a transgender activist who has launched a program designed to help the restaurant industry become more inclusive and better tap the talent pool of transgender workers.

Mendelsohn is founder of the California Transgender Workplace Project, or CTWP, which will be working with the California Restaurant Association to host seminars across the state for restaurant operators. 

The goal is to promote employment, but also to educate business leaders on human resource law and best practices for promoting inclusion.

Mendelsohn is in a unique position to teach on the subject. She was married for 30 years and has three grown children, then legally changed her name and gender in 2008. Her restaurant teams now include transgender employees, and Mendelsohn sees an opportunity to dispel what she describes as ignorance about the challenges such workers face.

Mendelsohn will be hosting a seminar scheduled for the CRA’s upcoming Western Foodservice & Hospitality Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Aug. 30, titled: “The New Normal: Trans Inclusivity in the Workplace.”

She’s also on the board of the Trevor Project, a national organization devoted to eliminating suicide among LGBT youth. And she served as a consultant to the series “Orange is the New Black.”

Here’s why Mendelsohn contends employers need to raise their awareness of transgender issues:

Tell me your story. Why do you do this?

I’m a transgender businesswoman myself. But about four and a half years ago, I hired my first transgender employee, and she told me her story. She was at another large chain – I won’t say the name – and though she clearly identified as woman, she was told she had to use men’s restroom, which was of course against California law, but there’s a lot of ignorance about the law. She was sexually molested in the men’s restroom, so she was told she could use the women’s restroom, if no one else was in there, because it was multi stall. 

But one day a woman came in behind her and came out to tell her husband that there was someone in the restroom that could be a man. The husband put pressure on the manager and the worker was fired.

I realized how lucky I was to have transitioned while I was a boss. As I got more involved in the transgender community, I realized what a massive problem it was, and even more so for trans women of color, Hispanic and African Americans, to be on equal footing for jobs and to be treated respectfully.

So over four years, we’ve hired a considerable number of trans employees. I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do. But I also found it was great for my business. My customers have been rewarding me for it.

In what way?

In the industry right now, it’s more difficult than it’s been in over 10 years to fully staff restaurants and manage turnover. To exclude a quality pool of employees is downright silly. 

What we found in our restaurants was that, because they were so happy to be on equal footing, and because they were so happy to be out and be themselves in the workplace, they were thriving. And customers were feeling it. 

We get many compliments about our transgender employees, which are about 12 percent of our workforce. I have one restaurant where it’s about 35 percent.  

So you’re approaching this not only from a personal perspective, but also from an employer’s perspective?

That’s right. So I thought, what a great way to bring this out to the restaurant community, to not only teach them the laws, ethics, moralities and practicalities involved in an inclusive workplace, but also to plead the business case and tell them what my experience has been.

How will CTWP promote employment and also education?

We’ve gotten a large grant from state of California to push this forward. We have an arrangement with CRA to put on six seminars, three in Southern California and three in Northern California, to reach restaurant owners and managers to educate them on HR laws, and give them HR tools for their restaurants.

Experts will teach them about workplace inclusivity. We’ll have 15-minute video that they can access electronically in their restaurants, geared for their managers. At that point, they’ll be connected with pool of transgender job seekers. 

Each person placed in a job will have a mentor, a transgender employee that is already successful in the workplace. Also, we’re reimbursing 60 hours of training costs to every restaurant that places one of the employees.

How much was the grant?

The grant is $150,000. We have chosen to go skinny on staff to give over half of it to restaurants as reimbursement for the training.

What are three things you’d like employers to take away from the seminars to make their workplaces more open to transgender workers?

I’m hoping they’ll be convinced that it’s the right thing to do for their business. But then, also to do this the right way. We need to make sure they have the right HR tools. There are simple changes they can make, like changing an application to ask for an employee’s preferred name and pronoun, as well as the legal name, if that’s different.

They need to understand laws that are currently in place, and those mostly have to do with attire, presentation and use of bathrooms.

Other than that, it’s sensitivity training. How to support those workers if there are any customer incidents.

LA might be kind of a bubble. We’ve had no real incidents that were negative enough that I would need to bring them up. But we would like the managers at restaurants to empower their trans employees if they’re getting hostile behavior from a customer, to let the customer know that’s not acceptable, and to call a manager over to handle it.

Do foresee this growing beyond California?

The CTWP’s mission is to promote California as a truly trans-positive workplace and to spread this to other industries, though with about 96,000 restaurants in California, we’ll have our hands full for a time.  We also want to see California become a model for the rest of country.

How have things changed in your view that allows us to be able to talk openly about these issues now?

The T of transgender has come out of closet, with people like Laverne Cox and Caitlin Jenner and such. But I also found it wasn’t trickling down into the workplace to people who needed entry-level jobs or even management positions. 

There’s still a lot of ignorance.  Twelve states are suing the U.S. government over the bathroom law issue. I speak to groups about once a week to try to dispel some of that ignorance.

We need to educate restaurant operators as best we can.  Most people in these companies have never met a transgender person in their life. But once they meet and get to know a transgender person, they’ll have a better sense of it on a human level.

Contact Lisa Jennings: [email protected]
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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