California Restaurants Launch Nation's First Transgender Jobs Program : The Salt The unemployment rate for transgender people is double that of the general population. A new program aims to change that. It's all because of a trans woman who's employed trans people for years.

California Restaurants Launch Nation's First Transgender Jobs Program

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We have a story about someone who saw a problem in her own community and set out to fix it. The problem was the high unemployment rate for transgender people. A trans woman in California took a success story from her own businesses and tried to supersize it. From member station KPCC in Los Angeles, Leo Duran reports.

LEO DURAN, BYLINE: The lunch rush was supposed to end hours ago, but in the heart of L.A., this fast food restaurant, El Pollo Loco, is still buzzing.

KRISTY RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

Some people hungry (laughter).

DURAN: General Manager Kristy Ramirez glides between the registers and the massive grill, serving hundreds of pieces of chicken.

RAMIREZ: We take the temperature to the chicken. We're taking the legs. We're taking the breast and all things.

DURAN: Ramirez has worked for El Pollo Loco for four years now, and she's loyal to the company because it gave her a chance that no one else would consider since she's transgender. Ramirez has the owner to thank for that, Michaela Mehndelson.

MICHAELA MEHNDELSON: The word's just gotten out that I'm a trans owner supporting trans people.

DURAN: In 1988, before she transitioned, Mehndelson bought her first El Pollo Loco franchise. She just happened to like their menu.

MEHNDELSON: I didn't go to college to figure out which restaurant (laughter).

DURAN: She acquired several more stores by the time she transitioned in 2004. But it wasn't until 2012 that she hired her first trans employee. That person told her how hard it was to get a job. Workplace discrimination and stigma are some of the reasons that trans people have an unemployment rate that's double the general population's. And Mehndelson was moved, and she started to reach out to other trans people looking for work.

MEHNDELSON: Currently, we have 8 to 10 percent of our total workforce is transgender, out of about 150 employees.

DURAN: Then she had a thought - is there a way to get other restaurants to follow her lead? So earlier this year at a conference of the California Restaurant Association, she was chatting with other members at a hotel bar, including her longtime friend and the group's head, Jot Condie.

JOT CONDIE: So I've known Michaela for - I don't know - 10, 12 years.


CONDIE: A long time.

DURAN: And Condi heard about the workplace discrimination that trans people deal with.

CONDIE: I consider myself, as a person, somebody who had my head in the sand when it comes to what they're really going through. This is a civil rights issue.

DURAN: Condie says he was convinced to have the Restaurant Association back Mehndelson's big idea.

CONDIE: To me, it wasn't like, whoa, are you serious? To me, it made sense.

DURAN: The idea was this - Mehndelson would start a program connecting trans people looking for jobs with restaurants looking for workers. The association has 22,000 members, so that means the program would be so large scale that it could make a real difference. And the first big step happened recently.

I'm on the convention floor of the Western Foodservice And Hospitality Expo that's happening in downtown LA.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Do you want to try a meatball?

DURAN: Sure.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We can just cut it in half.

DURAN: The California Restaurant Association sponsors this event every year. Vendors from around the country are trying to entice the 10,000 attendees to try something new.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Try a little sample?

DURAN: Sure, what am I sampling here?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Sticky buns, pot stickers, spring rolls.

DURAN: And one floor just above the expo, the association hosts a seminar where Mehndelson gives restaurateurs their first taste of her new program.

MEHNDELSON: Take a seat. We are here today with what we call the new normal.

DURAN: She gives them an intro course on the basics of trans people. You can call that trans 101. She explains how to apply and be certified as trans-friendly. And Mehndelson also tells people that a state grant will pay for the first 60 hours of a new hire's wages as an incentive. Back on the Expo floor, though, there's some skepticism. Some attendees say this program for trans people sounds like a good thing.

GRANT THEIM: I don't see why they can't work the way everybody else is entitled to work in this country.

DURAN: That's Grant Theim. But then he hesitates.

THEIM: You know, I still think there's a majority of people out there that may have a problem being served by somebody that's transgender.

DURAN: That concern worried Mendelson, too, but she was surprised. In the years she's had restaurants staffed with trans people, customers have been overwhelmingly supportive. And when they aren't, she says bosses should be prepared to stand up for their employees.

MEHNDELSON: You know, you hear the thing - the customer's always right. In my restaurants, the customer is always right unless they attack you personally.

DURAN: And with more trans people visible in the workplace, it could change the way all Americans view them, one order at a time. For NPR News, I'm Leo Duran in Los Angeles.

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