It's a rainy day in Southern California. The tinted glass door at El Pollo Loco on Western Boulevard opens to reveal a dining area bustling with customers. Regular Vicky Parker sits with a cup of coffee. She can't wait to talk about how much she loves coming here. What is it about this location that draws her back almost every day? Is it the food? Yes. Is it the staff? Absolutely. Vicky's kind eyes are glistening. She smiles while she talks. An employee stops by her table to say hello. Parker’s regular order is two pieces of dark meat chicken with salad and rice. She says that, though this El Pollo Loco is not the closest one to her house, she comes here because the cleanliness of the restaurant and the friendly staff.
What’s the special draw to this location that brings Vicky back so often? It’s one of the six locations owned by Michaela Mendelsohn, who has been working tirelessly to launch the California Trans Can Work Project. As a proud transgender woman, she knows first hand the experience of transitioning and becoming an advocate for the community. Mendelsohn knows that a transgender employment opportunity program can work because she has put the practice into action by employing several transgender women at her own El Pollo Loco locations, including this one on Western. Some are cashiers. Some work the drive by window. And some have been hired as managers or to work their way up through the management track.
Challenges in the workplace for the transgender community range from hostile actions by coworkers, harassment and discrimination. Some have been fired for conflicts over bathroom access, or complaints by customers. Others have felt it necessary to hide their identity.
A new Williams Institute study estimates that 150,000 youth in the United States of America from ages 13 to 17 identify as transgender. This finding makes promoting access to employment for the transgender community more important than ever. Mendelsohn has worked tirelessly to educate business owners and provide solutions. In the last few years, Mendelsohn has spoken to business and community groups with more than 400 people, carrying her message of awareness, education and inclusivity.
Jessye Zambrano was a manager at another fast food restaurant when she met Mendelsohn and applied for a job at El Pollo Loco. “I love to be an example. I am a transgender girl. I want to show my community we can do anything. Any position. We have the power. We are smart. We have two hands to move, we have a head to think. We can do everything like everyone else,” says Zambrano. “When I come to work, I feel proud of myself. It is hard to be a manager. I think it is double hard for me because I have to show my bosses I can do it. I can be a successful person and have a career in a company. I have the power to do that. If they show me how to do it, trust me I can.”
For Zambrano, meeting Mendelsohn changed her life. “She is an angel in my life. She treats me like a human. She can understand how I feel working,” she says. “Right now I am working happy because I can be myself. I can be successful. I can show the community, we can do this.” Walking into work each day for Zambrano feels joyful. “I feel proud of myself. I feel blessed because I have a job. I feel excited because every day is an opportunity to learn something. We have customers coming here every single day and every day we hear something sweet. We love to hear that because we have customers coming from everywhere. They come once and they come back.”
“It’s hard to hate people when you know them as just human beings,” says Mendelsohn. “My barometer is the bathroom thing. The bathroom fears are totally based on fear and ignorance because there has never been an instance of a trans person molesting someone in a bathroom. There have been thousands of instances of trans people getting molested in a bathroom they were forced to go into. Watching the polling of public opinion on this issue is a barometer of, 'Do they really understand? Are we really getting through to them?'”
Mendelsohn continues to find ways to communicate her mission. As a member of the California Restaurant Association, she has worked with them for many years to raise awareness. “I think the idea that diversity is good for business. Fortune 500 businesses have picked up on it,” says Mendelsohn. “The trans element of that is still lagging behind. I chose the restaurant business to start because I know it. What is nice about this moment in time is that I have tested it long enough in my own stores to be able to confidently say for me it has been a recipe of success.”
The El Pollo Loco where Mendelsohn has hired the most trans employees and managers is considered one of the top in the company, ranking high in food quality and service. “They are certainly taking advantage of this opportunity that for the first time in their lives they are on a level playing field. This is a pool of employees that to some extent is untapped. They are eager to work. In general, our experience has been amazing.”
“What has happened has been really wonderful," Mendelsohn says. "First of all, with their fellow employees, they all have each other’s back. There is a lot of diversity here. People come in and are rude to people just because of their ethnicities. I always tell my employees that the customer is always right, unless they attack you personally. And then you have the right to tell them that’s not acceptable, and call a manager over to diffuse it. We don't want to create a scene, but we won't serve someone if we cannot diffuse the situation. It is kind of a social laboratory that we have developed with my own stores."
"On the other hand, the customers are just loving it,” Mendelsohn continues. “This is really the first time that many of these women have worked as their true gender in the workplace. Then, they come to work for us. Customers affirm them in their true identity. Their self-esteem flowers. Their lives are changing so dramatically.”
Mendelsohn’s hard work is paying off. She has become well known in the trans community and beyond, not as an actress like Laverne Cox and Candis Cayne, but as a business leader. She consulted on "Orange is the New Black" and asked Jeffrey Tambor from "Transparent" to introduce one of her restaurant education videos. More recently, she participated in the National Geographic’s "Gender Revolution" documentary and events with Katie Couric. All of his notoriety helps Mendelsohn get her message to larger audiences. She also serves on Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Workforce Development Board.
Mendelsohn also asked cashier and drive through window attendant, Marie Hoole, to be on the Board of Directors of the California Trans Can Work Project. Together they all work towards a common goal to foster new job opportunities for the trans community. Back at El Pollo Loco, Hoole walks around the dining area checking on customers. She stops to share a few thoughts, “People can find community here. It is that place to us. It’s that mission. If we can change people’s hearts, if we can change people’s attitudes and they see friendship and community, we are doing something good, not only for us, but for everybody. We are really blessed that they are reacting that way. It’s a reassurance that something we are doing is affecting people positively.”
“That is not only my job, but it is gratifying because it is what I really like to do. To be able to change the world little by little,” says Hoole. “Like I tell my peers, one work day at a time. Every day we meet new people. Every day we have challenges. Some days, very seldom, we will have customers who will try to challenge the idea of inclusivity. How crazy is that? Inclusivity. Who does not want that?” For Hoole, she says this job feels like a second home. “I go from home to home. People here are very welcoming. I love being with my coworkers. They are nice. It is a community."
Mendelsohn often gets compliments about her transgender employees. Vicky Parker agrees. She orders some chicken to take home. She quotes the Bible and evokes the teachings of Jesus to remind everyone how important it is to treat all people equally. She hopes more will do the same. As for Michaela Mendelsohn, she's a warrior and will continue her mission to help the business community understand that the transgender community has the potential to be a resource for excellent employees.
Next, Mendelsohn will begin the process of reaching beyond the restaurant community.
We are going to specialize on the business end of things. We are going to produce videos for hopefully all of the major industries in California in coalition with all of the major LGBT groups throughout the state and try to create a certification process for businesses to learn the laws in a friendly way that is going to help them be successful. Then we will certify them and they get a sticker that says a trans friendly business for their door. I have hundreds of trans people saying, "I am afraid to go look for a job." They have been mistreated and harassed. If they knew this is a trans friendly business that has been certified, then the employer also knows that this is a way they can learn the law in a way that helps their business.
Laws protecting the transgender community range from the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 to executive orders that prohibit discrimination. These laws and executive orders ensure the right for transgender people to transition at work, dress according to their identity and use restrooms and locket rooms consistent with their gender identity.
Mendelsohn has begun making educational videos on how to follow the laws and create transgender inclusive workplaces. So far the progress is encouraging. People are getting hired. Awareness is opening minds and hearts. That’s the kind progress Mendelsohn has been working towards.
Advice for job interviews by Marie Hoole and Jessye Zambrano
1. Be yourself. When you feel comfortable, nerves fade away. This is the person you are going to be. Be professional so they can see you as an employee.
2. Do your research. Learn about the company you are applying to.
3. Get out there. Don’t be afraid to present yourself as who you are. Be the best version of yourself.
1. Forget about being nervous. Whoever is doing the interview is a human. Be yourself and be honest with the person doing the interview.
2. Smile. You have an opportunity. Show them you can do it. Show them you are ready to start working. Be positive that you will get the job.
3. When you have the job, prove to them you can do it. Show them that being trans has nothing to do with the job.
Top image: Jenny Kim