One occupational hazard for teens: harassment

There's so much for teenagers to learn when they start a job: teamwork, responsibility, patience when a customer is grumpy. The last thing they'd expect is a personal lesson on what it's like to be sexually harassed.

Four young women in Arizona and three young men in New Mexico say that's what they faced from male managers at McDonald's franchises where they worked. In lawsuits filed last week by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the franchise owners, they detail charges of verbal harassment and physical abuse. The employees ranged in age from 14 to 17 at the time, and say their complaints went unheeded. Some found their hours reduced in retaliation, or felt they had no choice but to quit.

"Anyone out there who has had this done to them should really speak out," said one of the employees, Amanda Henry, at a press conference. "You need to be strong. You might think you did something wrong, but you didn't.... You should just speak out to whoever - a parent, a friend, counselors, teachers, management.... Do whatever you need to do to set the situation right."

That's a message the EEOC wants to get out to teens before they enter the workforce, in the hopes that at the first sign of inappropriate behavior they'll be able to take a stand. In September the agency launched its year-long Youth@Work Initiative, teaming up with schools, youth organizations, and employers to teach thousands of teenagers nationwide about their rights and responsibilities on the job (www.youth.eeoc.gov).

The goal is to arm America's next generation of workers with information, and "to teach them about respect, teach them about hands off," says EEOC vice chair Naomi Earp. In addition, she says, "we want to send some signals to the business community - retail and food service in particular - to say, when you hire these young people, you have a responsibility to also protect them."

The EEOC filed 28 lawsuits on behalf of teen workers in fiscal year 2004, up from seven in 2001. While the charges include discrimination on the basis of race, religion, pregnancy, and disabilities, the vast majority involve sexual harassment, primarily against teenage girls. Some are preyed upon by older managers, Ms. Earp says, while others are the target of immature behavior from supervisors who themselves are teenagers or in their early twenties. It's not clear whether the increase in lawsuits means that more harassment is taking place or simply that more people are getting savvy about filing complaints.

Many teens are hesitant to reveal what happens to them. In one EEOC case, a girl working at a shoe store kept silent about harassment by co-workers and a supervisor for several months, but her mother noticed changes in the usually confident teenager. "She slept a lot, she was wearing baggy clothes, and she did not want to be touched," says Joan Ehrlich, district director of the EEOC in San Francisco. "Finally her mother pulled it out of her as to what was going on," and the two came into the office to file a complaint. That case was eventually settled for $150,000, she says.

When Beverly Hinton of the Birmingham, Ala., EEOC talks to teens in schools, she finds that most haven't heard of her agency, nor do they have a clear idea of what constitutes sexual harassment.

Even some teachers and counselors who place students in jobs aren't very well informed about antidiscrimination law, Earp says.

To raise awareness, a group of San Francisco high-schoolers recently created a 12-minute video about harassment. They act out a variety of scenes: a male manager who leaves pornography around and gets too close for comfort with female employees; a female boss suggestively telling a young man that his job prospects are good because she likes the way he moves.

The EEOC in San Francisco helped produce the video and is distributing it along with a teacher's guide. It also sponsored an educational comic strip in Spanish aimed at young agricultural workers.

Employers need to think creatively too, Earp suggests. They've been asked to "jazz up" their antiharassment policies and training. "It really needs to resonate with a young group of workers who are electronic in almost everything they do."

One partner in the EEOC's outreach efforts is the National Restaurant Association, which expects 2.8 million teenagers to work in the industry this year. "We believe that even one case of sexual harassment is too many," says spokeswoman Sue Hensley. "Certainly, in an industry with 12 million employees, these are isolated incidents. But we are strongly in support of ensuring that there is that education for teen workers and that they are aware of their rights."

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