WASHINGTON – Sexual harassment (search) and discrimination against teens in the workplace is on the rise, the government says, citing the growing number of lawsuits it is pursuing against employers. The surge has also prompted a new national campaign to educate youth about their rights at work.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (search) says about 40 lawsuits related to teen sexual harassment or discrimination have been filed or settled since 2002.
Only "a handful" of suits involving teens were filed in previous years, commission spokesman David Grinberg said. The agency is just starting to track such lawsuits and complaints, so earlier figures were not available.
EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, age or disability. The commission investigates complaints and pursues legal remedies for those with merit, if settlements cannot be reached. The EEOC files roughly 400 lawsuits a year.
More teens are working these days, which could account for the rise in lawsuits, experts say. Workers also may be better educated about what is appropriate, and more willing to report problems.
EEOC thinks more awareness is needed. Most of the agency's recent suits involving teens are on behalf of young women complaining of sexual harassment by managers, such as lewd comments and inappropriate touching.
The jobs are in industries that employ many younger workers: restaurants, retailers, hotels and movie theaters. Turnover often is high, and many managers, often young themselves, aren't trained to avoid or recognize harassment and discrimination, Grinberg said.
About 7 million people ages 16 to 19 are in the labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (search).
More than half of the EEOC's 40 suits over the last two years involved the restaurant industry, one of the largest employers of younger workers.
"In an industry of 12 million people, this is a small amount of anecdotal evidence," said Sue Hensley, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, which is participating in EEOC's new outreach effort. "However, we certainly feel strongly about the importance of this program and that it will be beneficial to teens in this industry."
More than half of restaurant industry workers are under age 30, the association says.
The awareness campaign includes visits and presentations at high schools nationwide. Educational videos and materials, including bilingual comic books are being distributed to educate young workers about their rights at work.
EEOC has created a Web site on the issue, and also plans to hold forums involving employers, workers and labor experts.
Lynn Bruner, EEOC's district director for St. Louis, said she became concerned about teens in the work force when she discovered that all but one of her district's sexual harassment cases last year involved women under age 21.
One case involves an 17-year-old female restaurant employee who charged that she was followed to her car after work by a cook who demanded oral sex, pulled on her clothing and exposed himself. He threatened to kill her if she told anyone.
EEOC's San Francisco district office has noted an increase in sexual harassment complaints, many involving teens. There were seven such suits last year. The office generally files 30 to 40 total suits a year, said Joan Ehrlich, district director.
A recent, $75,000 settlement involved three young women, two who were 16 and the other 18, who worked at a country club. They were harassed by the executive chef there, who asked them for lap dances and touched them inappropriately, Ehrlich said.
education is needed to let these young workers know "that they don't have to put up with the harassment. What is happening to them is illegal and should stop," she said.