Teen Jobs with Adult Problems: Sexual Harassment

It’s the time of year when many businesses hire teens for the holidays to handle the anticipated increase in work over the next few weeks. Some of those teens may be getting far more than they have bargained for this holiday season, unfortunately. Instead of just a little extra Christmas cash, these teens are facing sexual harassment from their supervisors and coworkers.

An increasing number of teens, especially vulnerable since they’re often in first-time jobs and have a fear of making waves, are finding themselves in the midst of a very adult-like problem: sexual harassment. The problem is especially rampant in fast food restaurants, where groups of teens are often supervised by someone else barely out of their teens, turnover is high and training standards are a low priority.

A typical story is that of Amanda Nichols of the St. Louis area. Amanda, eager to make some money for college, took a job working as a server at the local Steak n Shake, in the summer after her junior year in high school. Amanda, who was 17 at the time, had to dodge the come-ons of an older cook who kept pulling on her apron, touching her, and making sexually explicit remarks. Amanda complained to managers and asked to be moved away from the cook, but nothing was done. Then one night, the cook followed Amanda to her car in the parking lot, threatened her and exposed himself. When she complained again, and told her manager to choose between the cook and her, the manager told her that it might be best if she left, which at that point she did. (See Washington Post article.)

But in one aspect, Amanda’s story is less typical: she fought back. After Amanda left her job, her father found a lawyer who filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC filed suit on Amanda’s behalf. Steak n’ Shake has denied the changes. Amanda is now a sophomore in college, and her case is still pending.

Just this week, it was announced that seven teenagers in St. Louis (not necessarily a hotbed of sexual harassment, but perhaps more a reflection of the active work the EEOC’s District Office in St. Louis has done in this area) will share a $400,000 settlement reached with Burger King. (See Associated Press article.) The young women were all harassed by the restaurant manager, Nathan Kraus, subjected them to repeated groping, vulgar sexual comments and demands for sex from December 2000 to April 2001.

While the teens complained to several assistant managers, they too were powerless to help, since Kraus was their boss too, according to William Moench, their lawyer. The settlement reached in the case requires Burger King to conduct extensive sexual harassment training for management, distribute a revised sexual harassment policy and set of procedures to all employees, and more prominently post in their restaurants a toll-free hot line number for reporting harassment.

In one of the first cases brought by the EEOC involving a teenager who was sexually harassed, Tiffany Grabin received $111,250 in a settlement with her former employer, a now-defunct athletic shoe company in San Jose, California. In Tiffany’s suit, she claimed that a co-worker and a supervisor sexually teased her, taunted her and goaded customers into propositioning her. The last straw came when the primary harasser put his hands around her neck and asked, “What would your boyfriend do if I snapped your neck right now?”

After Tiffany quit, her mother found an attorney, and her complaint made its way to the EEOC District Office in San Francisco. Tiffany, now 25, said of her experience, “I knew that it’s not appropriate to be treated that way, but I didn’t know what to do about it. Part of the problem was management. When a grown man is saying things about you, how do you complain to him?”

One of the most difficult aspects of sexual harassment law, especially as it relates to teenagers, is the need to complain to the employer. When an employee is being harassed by a co-worker, client or customer, the employer must know or have reason to know about the harassment in order to be legally responsible. While registering a complaint may not be a legal requirement if the harasser is a supervisor, the law is blurry enough about who is and isn’t legally considered a supervisor to make it difficult, especially in some of the more informal settings in which teens work, to know what to do.

Teenagers aren’t necessarily trained about harassment issues or the need to speak out. Their supervisors are often low-level managers who may not have been properly trained themselves. The environment may be permeated with the kind of banter and flirting that is typical of many high school environments, making it difficult for teens to understand when lines have been crossed. Most importantly, however, the evidence shows that those who report harassment generally face retaliation, which can deter even the most seasoned employee from fighting back. (See Effects of Sexual Harassment, summarizing the work of Louise Fitzgerald.)

So what can a teenager facing sexual harassment do? One place that teens can turn is a website especially for them, developed by the EEOC, called Youth at Work. There, teens can learn about their workplace rights and what to do when those rights are violated. The website gives real life examples of cases brought by other teenagers, as well as a summary of the laws that protect all workers, including teen workers. And while most teens probably think they have enough tests at school, there’s a “Challenge Yourself” section that tests how well site users understand basic discrimination and harassment concepts. This website, as well as involvement in many of the cases involving teens who were sexually harassed, are part of the EEOC’s new national outreach and public education initiative, launched in September, called “Youth@Work.”

According to Tiffany Grabin, here’s what teenagers should know: “Just because you’re a teenager doesn’t mean you don’t have rights. There are laws, and if you know your rights, you are better able to stand up for yourself.” (See Washington Post article.) Thanks to Tiffany, Amanda, and other teens who have learned early in their lives to stand up for their rights, with the help of the EEOC and private attorneys and advocates, some managers will not still be getting away with harassing a new group of teenagers this holiday season.

Other Resources:

Your Rights: sexual harassment

Your Rights: filing a discrimination complaint

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.