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In her ten years as a trial attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Marcia Mitchell has seen all kinds of workplace discrimination. But Mitchell began looking at her caseload in a new light after representing a former Footaction USA sales associate who claimed to have experienced a barrage of lewd comments and advances from a coworker. The events culminated with the harasser allegedly throttling the 17-year-old high school student, threatening to snap her neck. For Mitchell and other attorneys in the EEOC’s San Francisco office, the case served as a wake-up call: Among the millions of teenagers who staff the nation’s fast food and retail outlets, sexual harassment is a pervasive problem that’s long existed under the radar. In 1994, the first year for which the EEOC has numbers available, the agency handled 1,281 workplace harassment cases nationwide in which the charging party was 18 or younger, says Sanya Hill Maxion, a trial attorney in the EEOC’s San Francisco office. Since then the agency has handled more than 10,000 such cases. So far in 2003, it has filed 541 cases on behalf of minors, about 99 percent involving sexual harassment. “Clearly it’s not a new issue, but it’s an issue that’s only recently [gotten] attention,” she says. In the past 16 months, the EEOC has filed sexual harassment suits involving teen employees against Denny’s, Church’s Chicken, and a Missouri company that operates 37 Burger King restaurants. Teens are ill-prepared to recognize harassment and often don’t know where to turn, says Hill Maxion. “Teenagers on the job are often seen as fungible; a lot of employers don’t treat them with the same respect,” says David Pogrel, a staff attorney at San Francisco’s Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center. “I think that sort of runs over into a whole myriad of rights that are often violated.” Traditionally, the EEOC has focused its attention on the opposite end of the age spectrum, since workers age 40 and older are a protected group under federal law and often have complaints involving age discrimination. As agency attorneys set their sights on teenage employees, they’re confronting a different set of age-related issues. With 16-to-20-year-old employees, age is closely intertwined with sexual harassment. As adolescents, the employees are at a stage in life where they’re just learning about interpersonal relationships. Behavior that’s inappropriate, and even unlawful, in the workplace might be common among teens in other settings. Not surprisingly, awareness about rights and protections is much lower among teen employees than it is among older workers. While many corporations have policies to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, the sheer number of locations managed by some national retailers and fast food restaurants means it’s easy for an individual store to fall through the cracks. In the Footaction case, the athletic shoe retailer had a companywide anti�sexual harassment policy. But at the San Jose store where the incidents took place, signs with sexual harassment hotline telephone numbers and required EEOC material were not posted, according to EEOC’s Mitchell. The agency’s $111,000 consent decree with Footaction stipulated the implementation of training and a performance appraisal system for managers. Footaction, which could not be reached for comment, admitted no wrongdoing in the consent decree, which settled the suit. In addition to such standard litigation remedies, the EEOC is also taking a proactive tack. Last year the agency’s San Francisco office launched a youth outreach initiative in which attorneys gave presentations on workplace discrimination at local high schools. The group will ramp up the initiative as schools reopen, says Linda Li, an EEOC program analyst heading the effort. The issue is also starting to gain attention and resources on a national level. EEOC staff in Washington, D.C., are developing a high school curriculum on workplace harassment and discrimination and hope to have pilot projects running soon.
A version of this story originally appeared in The Recorder, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel and a part of American Lawyer Media.

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