When Heather Huff, 33, started working at a Missouri Jack in the Box in 2006, she thought working hard would lead to a steady job that would provide for her family. The single mother of one, now residing in West Philadelphia, said that her decade in fast food was marked by repeated incidents of sexual harassment.

"At first it was suggestive jokes," she said. "Then, it got worse when [a coworker] would follow me and grope me in the stocking room."

On Thursday, Huff and about 20 fellow activists gathered at the McDonald's at 7500 City Ave. to allege widespread sexual harassment in the fast-food industry. The rally, which lasted less than an hour, also was held to back increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. It drew support from several union groups, including the Washington-based Jobs With Justice.

The demonstration occurred one day after the filing of 15 federal complaints against McDonald's that alleged a pattern of harassment. The filings single out managers at the company, accusing them of harassing employees, ignoring or making light of employee complaints, or soliciting sex from their workers.

Terri Hickey, a spokeswoman for McDonald's, said: "We and our independent owner-operators share a deep commitment to the respectful treatment of everyone. There is no place for harassment and discrimination of any kind in McDonald's restaurants or in any workplace. We take any concerns seriously and are reviewing the allegations."

Burger King and Jack in the Box have not responded to requests for comment.

Survey data paint a grim picture for female fast-food employees in Philadelphia and across the nation.

A recent study commissioned by several women's rights groups, including the National Partnership for Women & Children and the Ms. Foundation for Women, found that 40 percent of women in the sector report being sexually harassed. These ranged from sexual teasing, jokes, and suggestive looks to hugging, touching, and groping.

Of those who are harassed, research cited by the surveyors indicates nearly half may suffer depression, sleep disruption, and other effects associated with their ordeal.

Ileen DeVault, academic director at the Worker Institute at Cornell University and a professor of labor history, was not surprised after she heard about the filing.

"Sexual harassment has been an issue for fast food (and even less-fast food) workers for a long time," she said. "The Restaurant Opportunities Center [ROC] has done multiple studies showing that workers earning the tipped minimum wage are even more likely to be sexually harassed, since their wages depend on tips. Because of this, it does not surprise me that this case is being brought to light at last."

The consequences of harassment can be particularly acute for LGBTQ employees such as Huff. "I don't know if men get joy out of it, but they came to me thinking they can change my identity" as a lesbian, she said, reflecting on an incident at a Burger King at 2550 Welsh Rd., where she said a customer routinely harassed her in sight of her manager.

Furthermore, fear of retaliation and adverse professional consequences prevents many women from reporting the issue through official channels.

Huff said her harassment at Jack in the Box continued for a year and she was powerless to get help. "I didn't tell my manager because I was scared they wouldn't believe me and I thought I'd lose my job because [her manager and the harasser] were close friends."

Huff now works at Arby's at 2560 Aramingo Ave. in Philadelphia. While addressing the other protesters on Thursday, she handed the megaphone to her 5-year-old daughter, Bella, who then led the group in chanting slogans.

"I want my daughter to go to work and not worry about being harassed," Huff said. "If she is harassed, I at least want her to be able to speak up and not be punished for it."

amannepalli@philly.com215-854-2507@mannepalliaswin