Lonna Wells was in the bathroom doing her hair and makeup when she received a call that she won’t soon forget.
“Hey, I just want to let you know that your job here is done, and I’m very sorry to have to let you go,” the voice on the other end of the line said.
When she asked what she’d done wrong, the person claimed that a customer had lodged a formal complaint that there was a woman working the drive-thru who was doing internet porn, and as a God-fearing Christian they didn’t feel comfortable giving the establishment their business. It was 7:30 a.m., just 30 minutes before she was supposed to clock in, and Wells was in a state of shock. She had just been fired from her local Taco Bell after less than week on the job, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, for being a sex worker.
“They couldn’t have even given me a heads-up, or waited until I got there to say something,” Wells tells me. “I just started bawling. I don’t know if it was because I was upset, or I was ticked, or a little bit of both.” She still has to return her Taco Bell uniform.
Wells, 33, says she was terminated less than two weeks ago from the only Taco Bell in Newport, Arkansas, a small town of less than 8,000 people.
“I went in when I didn’t even have to go in, and I would work a nine-hour shift with no lunch breaks—because in Arkansas, if you can eat on the job, they don’t have to give you lunch breaks,” says Wells. “I was working hard.”
The Daily Beast reviewed pay stubs confirming her employment and corroborated her story with her husband, who is very supportive of her sex work, as well as another employee, who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation. The firing took Wells by surprise, she says, because she’d even disclosed her sex work to her manager, April Garcia, during the interview process and was told that it wouldn’t pose a problem.
“I was very open about it and said, ‘Hey, this is what I do as a job right now and I’ve been doing it since 2017, is this going to cause any problems?’ And I was told by the manager, ‘No, it’s not going to cause any problems. Whatever you do in your spare time is your business,’” Wells recalls.
During the layoff call, Wells told Garcia she’d been honest and forthcoming about her sex work, and says Garcia apologized. When Wells requested to speak to a higher-up about the decision, she alleges Garcia refused, telling her that the decision was final.
When I called the Newport Taco Bell, Garcia answered. I introduced myself as a journalist for The Daily Beast and she initially appeared receptive, but as soon as I mentioned Wells’ government name, she accused me of being a “prank caller” and hung up. So, I rang again, and again Garcia picked up. She apologized for hanging up on me and branding me a prank caller, before admitting that Wells’ “name does sound familiar to me.” Garcia then asserted that she was barred from talking to reporters and directed me to Taco Bell’s corporate office. After pressing her for comment on Wells’ firing, Garcia exclaimed, “This is definitely a prank phone call. I’m sorry if you don’t have anything better to do with your time, but I’m not going to entertain you today,” and promptly hung up on me again. (Multiple calls and emails to Taco Bell’s corporate office were not returned.)
Wells started stripping in 2010, only to step away three years later after marrying her husband and having kids. In 2017, she began shooting amateur internet porn to earn extra money for the family. Raised in a Pentecostal home, she says she was particularly hurt by the customer invoking Christianity to shame her choice of work.
“One of the first things I was taught was that you’re not supposed to judge others—only God is supposed to do that,” she says. “When I heard that part, I froze.”
For the past three-plus years, Wells’ adult work has been featured on Pornhub, and she’s received two AVN award nominations, the so-called “Oscars of Porn.” She also has an OnlyFans page. But Wells recently decided to stop shooting porn owing to COVID-19 health concerns, and figured she could work at Taco Bell until the pandemic died down.
“I basically took it as a replacement for the shoots, so that way we’d have money to pay our bills, buy groceries, and put food on the table,” maintains Wells, who has young children. “I never expected to hear, ‘Because of your sex work, you cannot work here.’ It felt like discrimination.”
Unfortunately, there is very little legal recourse for Wells. According to the Arkansas Department of Labor and Licensing, “Arkansas recognizes the doctrine of ‘employment at will.’ This means that, as a general rule, either the employer or the employee may end the employment relationship at any time for any reason or for no reason at all.” The only exceptions to this rule are “firing an employee on the basis of age, sex, race, religion, national origin, disability or genetic information,” or if a woman “is pregnant or has had an abortion.”
Furthermore, it is “a crime to perform sexual acts in exchange for compensation” in the state of Arkansas, thereby outlawing all consensual sex work.
I spoke with Alana Evans, president of the Adult Performance Artists Guild (APAG), a union representing those in the adult industry, who says she’s outraged by Wells’ treatment.
“We are tired of watching our community of marginalized workers being shamed and shunned for their time spent working in adult. During a time where so many are becoming adult content creators just to put food on their table due to COVID, it’s shameful that Taco Bell would take this stance,” states Evans. “This is why the Adult Performance Artists Guild is taking our fight against Occupational Discrimination to Washington, D.C. We have had contact with numerous senator’s offices, including AOC, to push to have our Occupation added to the list of protected classes. This goal is at the top of the list for our union. We are seeking to have this implemented at a federal level.”
Wells isn’t sure what she’ll do for work now. She could apply elsewhere, maybe to the local McDonald’s, but is worried that the same exact thing will happen.
“I live in such a small place, so everyone knows everybody’s business,” she offers.
She may be forced to return to porn, despite her fears of contracting COVID-19, but for the time being would prefer a less risky job. But more than anything, she’s angry.
“I’m tired of seeing this happen to workers. We’re normal people. Whatever you do in your private life or spare time should be private,” says Wells. “If we don’t speak up, who’s to say this isn’t going to keep happening?”
UPDATE: Following publication, Taco Bell’s corporate office issued the following response: “Taco Bell team members come from diverse backgrounds and experiences and all are welcome into the Taco Bell family. This former team member worked for a franchise location and the franchisee has informed us that the accusations made are not accurate and that she was instead terminated for violation of their policies and procedures.”
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