Some Teens Face Sexual Harassment at Work Teenagers around the country are staying busy in their summer jobs, but their workplaces are not always trouble-free. The number of sexual harassment lawsuits brought on behalf of teenagers by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is small, but growing.
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Some Teens Face Sexual Harassment at Work

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Some Teens Face Sexual Harassment at Work

Some Teens Face Sexual Harassment at Work

Some Teens Face Sexual Harassment at Work

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Teenagers around the country are staying busy in their summer jobs, but their workplaces are not always trouble-free. The number of sexual harassment lawsuits brought on behalf of teenagers by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is small, but growing.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And back now with DAY TO DAY.

You are no doubt seeing fresher faces behind the ice cream counter or at the motion picture box office these days. They are youngsters in summer jobs. Behind some of those smiling faces could lie a dark shadow. Regulators are concerned that a growing number of teenagers' first jobs could be tainted by sexual harassment.

Chana Joffe-Walt reports now from Seattle.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: You're 16, 17. You want money. You have no skills. You're qualified for nothing except the jobs no one wants to pay pennies. Basically, you're on the bottom of the totem pole. In fact, you're not even on the totem pole. You're in the mud holding it up.

Ms. ANNA STEVENSON(ph): It's kind of like being the new kid in class.

JOFFE-WALT: Anna Stevenson can relate. Her first job was in fast food at 15.

Ms. STEVENSON: They definitely took advantage of me as far as hours, minimum wage at the time being $4.25; most of the people are older than you and waiting for you to mess up somehow.

JOFFE-WALT: Then Anna saw this ad for a waterproofing company called Ever Dry. She landed a telemarketing job and made a lot more than she did in fast food. But there were tradeoffs. Comments like this from her manager.

Ms. STEVENSON: So he says, I've been looking down at your shirt and I can see straight down your shirt. And I said, oh, thank you at first. You know, and went to button it. I popped a button. And he said, no, no. I've been able to see down at it all day. I just wasn't going to say anything, but you should be flattered.

JOFFE-WALT: Then Anna started hearing these whispers. Other teenage girls on the night shift were talking about getting love notes from superiors. One co-worker told Anna a salesman had offered her money for sex. Nobody reported these incidents. Then it got worse.

Ms. STEVENSON: It turned into touching, grabbing. I had to show somebody the color of my bra to go on a break.

JOFFE-WALT: Finally, Anna confronted her boss. He told her this is what happens in every workplace.

Ms. STEVENSON: No, I didn't necessarily know if that was true or not. You know, I'm not an idiot, but at the same time this is also a guy that's the age of my father telling me this is what you have to do at your age to be respected in the workplace.

Ms. NAOMI EARP (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission): Teens don't understand their place in the workforce. Usually it's the very first job. They are the most vulnerable group in the workplace.

JOFFE-WALT: This is Naomi Earp, chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She says teens don't understand their rights. And bosses take advantage of that.

Ms. EARP: Kids don't challenge authority in the workplace the way they do at home or even the way they do in school. In the workplace it can be very hierarchical. You're here, I tell you what to do, you get it done, you don't like it, you don't have a job.

JOFFE-WALT: But Naomi Earp says the EEOC has seen an increase in teen complaints. In the past five years, the agency has filed 119 lawsuits on behalf of teenagers. That could mean more teens are being discriminated against at work or that more teens are reporting that discrimination.

There aren't enough statistics yet to know for certain. Either way, Earp says more education is needed. The EEOC has launched a Youth at Work initiative. There are Web sites, collaborations with schools and employers, and of course the obligatory MySpace pages and YouTube videos.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Male: First, give your employer a chance to clean up the workplace, to do away with the harassment. You need to let somebody know that you don't appreciate it, that it's offensive to you, and that you want to see it stop.

JOFFE-WALT: Anna Stevenson wishes someone told her that on day one. Eventually one of Anna's co-workers did file a complaint with the EEOC. The agency investigated Ever Dry and her claims of harassment from Anna and 12 of her co-workers. They brought a lawsuit. And last year a jury found Ever Dry liable. Ever Dry declined to comment for the story. Anna won a $79,000 settlement.

Ms. STEVENSON: And when I looked back, I think, boy, I got pulled in by the same type of stuff that like my mother warned me about when I was five or six years old.

JOFFE-WALT: Anna's now 27. She says she's had a hard time in her last few jobs, except, curiously, for one: bartending. Anna says drunken men in a bar are nothing compared to what she experienced as a teenager in the workplace.

For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.

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