- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2008

Stefany Ferguson’s attitude toward sexual harassment is just what the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission wants as teenagers head off to summer jobs: zero tolerance.

Miss Ferguson, 18, said her first response to unwanted attention would be to “tell my manager.”

If the harassment came from a supervisor, “I would quit, or I would go tell the person higher than him,” said the barista at the Borders bookstore cafe in Silver Spring.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said its Youth@Work initiative is paying off, with more teenagers like Miss Ferguson aware of their rights. The agency that protects workers’ rights started the program four years ago to raise awareness of teen sexual harassment.

Since then, EEOC officials said, more teenagers are reporting harassment on the job.

Some of the complaints have led to lawsuits that the EEOC files on behalf of workers.

The agency resolved one of the lawsuits this month when a Rochester, N.Y., safety-products distributor agreed to pay $375,000 to some of its female employees.

Four of the employees were teenagers.

The harassment included inappropriate touching, sexual advances and vulgar comments, according to the EEOC’s lawsuit on behalf of 18 women and girls employed by the company.

The EEOC used the case to renew warnings about sexual harassment in workplaces of teenagers as they start looking for summer jobs.

“We caution companies to be mindful that teenage employees are especially vulnerable to workplace harassment because of their inexperience,” said Spencer H. Lewis Jr., the EEOC’s New York district director.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that as many as 7.1 million — or 42.3 percent of — 16- to 19-year-olds held jobs last summer.

The number of teenage workers typically rises by more than 20 percent during summer months. Half of them work more than 15 hours per week.

In the first year of Youth@Work, the EEOC filed a wave of 30 lawsuits against employers. The number tapered off to 15 last year.

A lawsuit was filed this month on behalf of three women who worked for a Sonic Drive-In fast-food restaurant in Memphis, Tenn. One of the workers was a teenager.

The lawsuit accuses the restaurant of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids sexual harassment or retaliation against anyone who complains about it.

The pending lawsuit accuses a manager of requesting sex from the workers and touching them against their will.

However, lawsuits are not the goal of the Youth@Work initiative. Instead, the EEOC is trying to be proactive by teaching teenagers and their employers how to avoid sexual harassment.

“We are reaching out to and working cooperatively with the employer community to promote voluntary compliance,” said David Grinberg, EEOC spokesman.

The agency has sponsored more than 3,400 of the outreach events since the program started in 2004. EEOC officials said the initiative reached more than 212,000 students, teachers and employers, and suggested that it could explain why more teenagers are reporting harassment.

Keeisha Lee, a 16-year-old ice-cream scooper at the Ben & Jerry’s at City Place Mall in Silver Spring, said she learned about her rights in cases of sexual harassment from “friends, teachers, my parents.”

“If it did come down to that, I’d press charges,” said Keeisha, who wants to become a lawyer.