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Thursday, May 17, 2007

EEOC Reaches out to Teens, Bias, Harassment Often Covered Up

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A 16-year-old fast-food restaurant worker in rural Georgia is told she has to work late and is raped over two months by her boss.

A male manager at a Family Dollar store in Atlanta ridicules a 17-year-old for not being manly enough.

In Raleigh, teenage boys working at a Carmike Cinema are groped and pressured for sex by their male supervisor, a convicted sex offender.

Since 2000, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has seen a pattern of workplace abuse involving these and other teenagers.

"They are one of the most vulnerable groups [of workers] out there," said Terrie Dandy, an outreach manager in the EEOC's Atlanta district office, which covers all of Georgia and parts of South Carolina.

Hundreds of teenagers file discrimination complaints each year with the federal agency and other state and local civil rights agencies, EEOC officials estimate. Last year alone, more than 40 percent of the cases were sex-related.

The number of cases filed by teenagers represent a fraction of the 7,767 sexual harassment charges filed nationwide last year with the EEOC. But they're no less problematic.

The EEOC is the federal agency that monitors and regulates a wide range of workplace problems such as race and age discrimination, as well as sexual harassment. Between 2001 and 2005, the agency prosecuted 105 lawsuits nationwide involving teen workers. Of those cases, 80 percent involved sexual harassment.

Atlanta EEOC officials received 32 charges from teen workers for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30. Of those charges, 14 were allegations of sexual harassment. Eight of those were against fast-food restaurants.

The problem is far more prevalent than reported cases suggest, EEOC and researchers say.

"We don't get everything," said Anthony Seals, a senior investigator with the EEOC. "A lot of these teens are really fearful. We've been told that if they told an adult they would be retaliated against."

Nationally, most of the charges are against employers in fast-food restaurants, retail and other service industries, places where most of the nation's nearly 6 million teen workers are employed.

While rape is among the worst abuse teens face on the job, it's rare. But it does happen.

"I was shocked," Seals said of his case three years ago involving the 16-year-old fast-food worker. The girl, who came to his office with her mother and a lawyer, was visibly pregnant. The baby's father? Her married boss, who was in his 30s. The girl said she was forced to stay late, and that's when her supervisor would rape her. The girl didn't say anything for a time because she was afraid of losing her job.

"You see a lot of TV [reports] where students have had sexual encounters with teachers," said Seals, who has a 16-year-old daughter. "But you don't think it would flow over into the workplace."

The congressional page scandal, the growing number of teachers preying on students and the national crackdown on online pedophiles have made the American public more aware of teens as sexual targets.

But little is said about what goes on when teenagers don uniforms and head to their jobs, often their first experience in the workplace.

Susan Fineran, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Southern Maine, has studied teen sexual harassment for the past decade, mostly among students. She now includes teen workers.

"Eighty to 90 percent of kids are out there working these days," she said. "This is a huge population of students basically being exposed to sexual assault or behaviors."

Her research has shown that even though teens work fewer hours than adults, they have just as high a chance of being sexually harassed.

"This is their first experience in the adult workplace for the most part," Fineran said. "Although they may have heard of sexual harassment and how it's bad in school, I'm not sure they're as educated about workplace sexual harassment and what to do about it if it happens to them."

128,000 students reached

In response, federal authorities two years ago created a program to tell middle school, high school and college students about their workplace rights.

Youth@Work Initiative was started by Naomi Earp, who was sworn in as chairman of the EEOC last week.

Shortly before coming to the agency, Earp heard about a 17-year-old girl in her suburb who had been sexually harassed on the job. The case stuck with Earp, mother of a teenager.

When she got to the EEOC, she was disturbed to learn the case was not an isolated incident. Field investigators were reporting increases in teens being sexually harassed at work.

In the two years since Youth@Work's inception, the EEOC has conducted 1,800 events reaching 128,000 students, their employers and teachers.

In Atlanta, for instance, EEOC officials say students regularly approach them after they speak about on-the-job sexual harassment. Some teens say they've been harassed; others are seeking advice on questionable behavior at their jobs. Some of the meetings lead to teens filing charges.

"Teens are very savvy in certain areas like fashion, technology and pop culture," said Lisa Schnall, an attorney adviser to EEOC Chair Earp. "They're a lot less savvy when it comes to their rights on the job."

EEOC official Bernice Williams-Kimbrough said a big part of Youth@Work is aimed at helping employers deal with the issue.

"If they don't have trainers on staff, the EEOC is always available," said Williams-Kimbrough, EEOC district director in Atlanta.

The agency is working with the National Retail Federation, the National Restaurant Association and the National Education Association to address abuses.

"The burden of the business to train and keep training and keep monitoring is very high, and we take it seriously," said Ron Wolf, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association, which has 3,000 members ranging from independents to national chains.

Wolf, a former training director for two food-service firms, said the industry does an "exceptional job of addressing sexual harassment, given the sheer volume of people we employ and the transient nature of the industry."

The agency has garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages for teenagers in recent years. In Georgia, the five largest monetary benefits to teens totaled more than $49,000 during the last five years.

Wide range of offenses

The offenses teenagers report run the gamut, ranging from lewd comments and jokes to touching, pressure for sex or any other situation that creates a hostile work environment.

Just last month, a jury in New York awarded a group of women $585,000 in a sexual harassment suit the EEOC brought against their former employer, a national basement waterproofing company.

The 13 women, who were teenagers when the abuses occurred, endured crude remarks and were asked to dress provocatively and dance on tables for male co-workers. One 16-year-old girl was coerced into having her toes sucked by her male manager in front of her co-workers on her first day on the job.

Carmike Cinemas was ordered last year to pay $765,000 in a case involving 14 teenage boys. The Carmike case is unique, EEOC officials said, because cases of males sexually harassing other males are rarely reported, especially when the victim is a teenager.

Monetary awards are little consolation to Fineran, who fears that the abuses will have lasting effect.

"It can turn kids off to working," she said. It also makes parents reluctant to let their children experience the challenges of first jobs, what for past generations has been a rite of passage into adulthood.

Seals, who has worked on more than 200 sexual harassment cases, mostly of adults, in his six years at the EEOC, worries about that, too. Working with teen victims has made him ultraprotective of his daughter, who at 16 is old enough to work.

"She's not working, but she wants to," Seals said last week, while on his way to investigate a case of sexual abuse of a young convenience store worker.

"But I'm kind of cautious about where she works. I'm not too comfortable with her working at a fast-food restaurant."

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