- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2004

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will start a year-long campaign today to protect teenage workers from discrimination and sexual harassment on the job.

The “Youth at Work” campaign begins with a presentation to students at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring by EEOC Vice Chairman Naomi C. Earp.

EEOC officials said they hope to educate teenagers about their rights and to encourage employers to voluntarily comply with federal rules forbidding harassment and abuse on the job.

“We’re seeing an emerging trend of discrimination and harassment aimed at teenagers in the workplace,” spokesman David Grinberg said.

Although the EEOC does not statistically track the number of harassment complaints by age, the agency says anecdotal evidence and litigation from field offices indicate the problem with teenagers is worsening.

Mr. Grinberg said a contributing factor appears to be that a growing percentage of the work force is reaching retirement age. As older workers retire and are replaced by other experienced employees, lower-level management jobs are turned over to younger workers.

“Thus you have new teenage entrants to the labor force who don’t know their rights being managed by younger employees who may not be aware of the law either,” Mr. Grinberg said.

Most commonly, the sexual harassment is directed at young women working in the fast-food, retail and hospitality industries, according to the EEOC.

The National Restaurant Association, a trade group for restaurants, says the EEOC lacks evidence that sexual harassment and discrimination against teens is common in the fast-food industry.

“There’s only anecdotal information,” said Sue Hensley, spokeswoman for the association. “There isn’t data to support that claim.”

Nevertheless, the association supports the EEOC’s worker education campaign.

“We have been working with the EEOC on this program because we believe that even one case of sexual harassment is too many,” Miss Hensley said.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 2.9 million 15- to 17-year-olds work during school months. The number rises to 4 million during the summer. Half of employed high school students work more than 15 hours per week.

The Equal Employment Advisory Council, an association of large private sector employers, says the best response to abuse and harassment of teenagers is for employers to institute policies and procedures to handle the problem effectively.

The council also questions the EEOC’s assertion that abuse and harassment of teenagers is increasing.

“I think there’s a real possibility that it’s just being reported more,” said Ann Reesman, general counsel for the Equal Employment Advisory Council. “That’s because, generally speaking, more people are aware of the issue.”

The EEOC, which enforces anti-discrimination laws, has filed more than 40 lawsuits in the past three years on behalf of teenage workers. Most involved sexual harassment but others involved race and disability discrimination.

In one case, the EEOC obtained $525,000 in settlements in January for teenage girls who worked at a pizza restaurant and at a steakhouse in Tampa, Fla.

In another case in Denver last year, the EEOC won a $75,000 settlement for a deaf teenage girl who was denied a job as a hotel restaurant attendant. The EEOC argued that she could perform the job adequately but was denied employment because she was deaf.

The EEOC says the “Youth at Work” program is intended to avoid the harassment and discrimination problems rather than react to them with legal enforcement.

“We’re trying to be proactive,” Mrs. Earp said.

The EEOC plans to follow the presentation at Blair with similar events at schools throughout the Washington area. Afterward, the EEOC’s 51 field offices nationwide are supposed to sponsor meetings at schools during the next year.

Educating teens about their rights is intended to empower them “so they will feel comfortable saying ‘no’ to a manager,” Mrs. Earp said.

Other programs are directed at employers to encourage them to follow EEOC rules.

“We are working frantically with fast-food and retail associations,” Mrs. Earp said. “Secondly, we are working specifically with employers that have had some instances of harassment.”

Adele Rapport, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Detroit office, says youthful managers sometimes lack the maturity to treat employees respectfully.

“You give a young person a lot of power and maybe they abuse it,” Miss Rapport said.

She recently filed a lawsuit against a Millington, Mich., pizza restaurant on behalf of seven young female workers who saythey were sexually harassed.

“It’s often their first job,” Miss Rapport said. “They’re just barely able to get into the workplace.”

Few of them know how to handle job harassment properly, she said.

“They generally say, ‘I told my daddy,’” Miss Rapport said.

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