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In her 10 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 co-worker. The events culminated with the harasser allegedly throttling the sales clerk, a 17-year-old high school student, and threatening to snap her neck. The case served as an alarming wake-up call for Mitchell and other attorneys in the EEOC’s San Francisco office. 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 EEOC has handled more than 10,000 such cases. So far in 2003, the agency has filed 541 cases on behalf of minors, virtually all of which involve sexual harassment claims. “Clearly it’s not a new issue, but it’s an issue that’s only recently getting attention,” says Hill Maxion. Over 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. Unlike adult workers, teens are ill-prepared to recognize harassment and often don’t know where to turn to when they experience it, says Hill Maxion. David Pogrel, a staff attorney at San Francisco’s Legal Aid Society — Employment Law Center, says that teen workers are frequently taken advantage of. “Teenagers on the job are often seen as fungible. A lot of employers don’t treat them with the same respect,” says Pogrel. “I think that sort of runs over into a whole myriad of rights that are often violated on behalf of young workers — not getting paid correctly and sexual harassment among young women.” The Legal Aid Society — Employment Law Center previously operated a youth employment law project, says Pogrel, but was forced to cut it because of funding shortfalls. 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 EEOC attorneys set their sights on teenage employees, they’re confronting a different set of age-related issues. When it comes to employees in the 16-20-year-old range, 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. For newcomers to the workforce, these boundaries aren’t always clear. 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, posters with sexual harassment hotline telephone numbers and required EEOC material were not posted, according to Mitchell, the attorney who worked on the case. The EEOC’s $111,000 consent decree with Footaction stipulated the implementation of training and a performance appraisal system for managers. Officials at Footaction, who could not be reached for comment, admitted no wrongdoing in the consent decree that 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 visited a few local high schools and gave presentations on workplace discrimination. “Being in this business for a while, you realize that prevention is critical,” says Mitchell. “The more that people understand their rights, the sooner they’re able to take advantage of those rights.” The issue is also starting to get attention and resources on a national level. Staff members at the EEOC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., are currently developing a high school curriculum on workplace harassment and discrimination that teachers will be able to use in their classrooms. The agency hopes to have pilot projects with the lessons up and running in time for the next school year. “I think this is a huge area that needs a lot of attention,” says Joan Ehrlich, the EEOC’s acting director of communications and legislative affairs. “It’s an area that’s just been overlooked. And with more and more kids coming into the workforce, they really have to know, not only how to file a complaint, but how to handle these situations.”

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