Young workers least likely to find help, yet suffer deepest scars: Teen sexual harassment
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission identifies industries that tend to attract employees age 15 to 21. Those industries may feature more casual work environments that can lead to higher incidents of sexual harassment, according to the EEOC. The agency lists fast food, retail, entertainment, hotels and businesses with a seasonal or high-turnover workforce.
An 18-year-old woman alleges her 42-year-old male boss cornered her in a booth at a Tigard tanning salon, stripped off her clothes and took pictures. She asked him to stop, finally pushing him away as he reached for her genitals. Desperate for a paycheck to cover her rent, the teen later asked police, “What was I supposed to do?”
A 17-year-old hostess at an Ashland restaurant alleges a male co-worker constantly asked about her sex life and danced suggestively behind her as she set tables, long after she had asked him to stop. She complained, collected witnesses and evidence and yet, she says, state and federal investigations never followed up.
A 22-year-old woman working at a Portland public golf course alleges a 42-year-old golfer restrained her in a cart as he offered to pay her as much as $80 for a sex act. Soon after, his 39-year-old friend pulled down his pants and flashed her from the front and back. When she told her boss, she alleges, he sent her back to work and let the men continue golfing.
A first job is supposed to teach young people about earning money and handling new responsibilities. Instead, many high school and college-age employees learn much harsher lessons.
In a recent survey, one in three teen workers reported they were sexually harassed at work. That’s a rate comparable to adult workers. But it’s likely those numbers fail to illustrate the full extent of the problem; national polls suggest as few as 5 percent of adult victims actually file harassment complaints.
Researchers say young workers are even less likely to report abuse. Often that’s because workers age 15 to 22 don’t realize the graphic comments and unwanted touching they may have tolerated in school constitutes sexual harassment at work. Of those who know it’s wrong, many are too scared, embarrassed or in need of a paycheck to speak up.
While these workers may be the least likely to report sexual harassment, researchers say, young people are more likely to be harmed by it long-term.
Young sexual harassment victims lose interest in school. They fear getting other jobs where they might be harassed again. Some gain weight or begin wearing baggy clothes to hide their bodies and protect themselves from unwanted attention. At worst, some suffer depression and stress disorders.
And yet the two public agencies tasked with protecting employees’ rights fall short when it comes to this vulnerable group.
At various times, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have trumpeted concerns about young workers being sexually harassed. Yet the state’s strategy to “triage” sexual harassment complaints aims to find the most egregious cases and filter out weaker ones, which experts suspect are more likely to be those filed by young employees who need the most help. An EEOC program designed to teach young people how to recognize and speak up about harassment never made it to Oregon.
What’s worse, neither agency can track their progress addressing these issue because neither requires birthdates on sexual harassment complaint forms.
“It’s outrageous we are not keeping track of the safety of our teenagers,” says Jennifer Drobac, a professor at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law and former employment lawyer who is researching the issue. “As adults, we need to take responsibility for protecting juveniles in school and in the workplace.”
As the state pushes complaints forward, some are picked up by that federal agency. For those that remain with BOLI, the state aims to help employees and employers reach a deal. After a certain period, employees are told they have the right to sue. When an employee files a lawsuit, the state officially drops the case.
Here’s a sampling of recent cases filed by young workers:
Megan Laws began working for Kaizen Restaurants Inc., a franchisee that operates the Burger King in Sandy, in December 2008 at age 17. A male supervisor began flirting with Laws and touching her, according to a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The lawsuit alleged a co-worker told the teen she should “take one for the team” and have sex with the supervisor in the freezer. Laws was fired in May 2010 after reporting the behavior to other managers, according to the lawsuit.
The Beaverton-based chain settled with the EEOC in 2012, agreeing to pay Laws $10,000 in lost wages, $123,333 in compensatory damages and $16,666 for her attorney fees. The company, which didn’t admit to any wrongdoing, also agreed to train employees about their rights and change how it responds to sexual harassment complaints.
A 16-year-old girl with a developmental disorder started working with her mother at a Winco Foods store in Washington County. An older male co-worker began sexually harassing the girl, according to a lawsuit filed in 2009. The complaint alleged the co-worker asked the 16-year-old to go outside and behind the store and she followed, thinking it was to complete a work duty. The lawsuit alleged the co-worker sexually assaulted the girl. According to the lawsuit, the mother told the store manager the next day, but the man wasn’t punished or fired. The 16-year-old was fired.
The grocer denied allegations in court filings. The case was settled with both sides bound by a confidentiality agreement; terms were not disclosed.
Amanda Mundy began working at Sandoval’s Fresh Mexican Grill at the Portland International Airport in 2008 when she was 21. The owner, who now operates five restaurants, often commented on Mundy’s body, hugged her against him and once attempted to kiss her on the lips, according to a complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. The labor department closed the complaint when Mundy’s lawyer took her case to court.
In court filings, Sandoval’s Fresh Mexican Grill owner Daniel Sandoval denied the allegations. The case was settled in April 2012 with both sides bound by a confidentiality agreement; terms were not disclosed.
Brooke Sinclair began working at the Dick’s Sporting Goods in Eugene in September 2009 when she was 21. A supervisor began flirting with her, grabbing her body and commented on what he would like to do with her sexually, according to a complaint filed with the Oregon Bureau of Labor. He once hit her behind with a baseball bat and said that he “liked the bounce back,” the complaint alleged. She complained to the store manager in October 2011 and was told she would be fired if she couldn’t get along with the supervisor, according to the complaint. The labor department closed the complaint when Sinclair’s lawyer took her case to court.
The retail sporting goods chain denied the allegations in court filings. The case was settled with both sides bound by a confidentiality agreement; terms were not disclosed.
The 18-year-old woman allegedly attacked by her boss at Islands Tanning in Tigard was sexually harassed before she even got the job, according to her complaint filed with the Oregon Bureau of Labor.
The teen had visited Islands Tanning as a customer and was excited when she saw the “Help Wanted” sign, according to a lawsuit filed with in Multnomah County Circuit Court. She was panicked because she’d just broken up with her boyfriend and he’d moved out, the lawsuit said. She needed a job to keep her apartment.
After she applied, the manager – a convicted felon named Matt Farmer – called and said the job was hers if she sent him a nude picture of herself, according to the lawsuit filed against Farmer and the seven-salon chain. The picture, he allegedly said, was a “condition” of getting a job with the Tualatin-based company.
Desperate for the job, the teen complied.
But why would anyone take a job after seeing such a massive red flag? The answer, says one of the few academics studying the issue, can be found at school.
“Students hear from classmates, ‘Hey baby, you’re really looking hot,’ and other bad language that denigrates women,” said Susan Fineran, a University of Southern Maine professor who has done three studies about teen workers and sexual harassment.
“Teens get normalized to these behaviors,” she said, “so in the workplace they don’t have the expectation of being treated better.”
One of Fineran’s studies, which polled 518 teens in 2008 and 2009 in a partnership with the Maine’s labor department, found one-third said they experienced some type of sexual harassment at work. Based on that study and others, Fineran says she believes young workers who are harassed on the job are more likely to suffer long-lasting effects.
Many of the students in Fineran’s study said their grades suffered and they became much less interested in getting another job or considering a career. In an online reader survey conducted by The Oregonian for this story, one respondent said her experience with sexual harassment pushed her to find work she could do from home.
Another woman who responded to the online survey, Jennifer Mill, said she remembers feeling uncomfortable when a former boss began staring at her breasts, then brushing “accidentally” against her body and, eventually, making regular sexual comments to and about her.
“It didn’t bother me at first since I was in college and desperately needed the money,” said Mill, who’s now 26.
Some of her co-workers saw the boss’s behavior and laughed, she said, discouraging her from complaining because it seemed that’s “just what was done there.” She left after a year, she said, when the harassment became too much to bear.
Yet she never entirely escaped the experience.
“It affected my self esteem in that I felt my self worth and capabilities as an employee and student were tied to my physical appearance,” said Mill, who also worried about experiencing harassment at future jobs. “I felt that perhaps my male professors were only giving me A’s because I was pretty, not because I studied hard and earned it.”
When it comes to reporting harassment, young people often feel a range of emotions, from embarrassment to fears they won’t be believed. Such worries can trump instincts to tell an adult. Teens, who face a national unemployment rate nearly three times higher than older workers, may need the money too badly to speak up.
Others simply can’t process what’s happening. Drobac, the Indiana professor and former employment lawyer, researched brain development for a book about harassment of high school and college-age employees. Even up to age 21, she said, many young people’s brains haven’t completely developed and they may not be capable of responding reasonably to such extreme and stressful situations.
Some young women worry their fathers, brothers or boyfriends will seek revenge and get in trouble, said Michael Dale, executive director of the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project. The Portland nonprofit helps low-wage and immigrant workers, including young workers sexually harassed on the job.
The harassment issue needs more attention, he said. He aims to refocus some of the Justice Project’s efforts this year to seek out more cases highlighting issues that typically affect women.
“With younger workers, there’s a grooming that goes on – it doesn’t usually start with stark quid pro quo,” he said. “There’s a little touching and it’s a little bit uncomfortable, a little bit wrong. But if they accept that, it escalates.
“Young workers want to be good, they want to be liked and given opportunities,” he said. “It’s really confusing when that gets tangled up with taking sexual advantage.”
EEOC’s program slips
Naomi Earp created Youth@Work, which teaches young employees nationwide about their rights in the workplace.
As Naomi Earp began her post on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2003, the lawyer was shocked at the increasing number of cases the agency received involving sexual harassment of high school and college-age workers. Later that year, a 17-year-old fast food employee was sexually attacked in a restaurant near Earp’s home.
Concerned, Earp jumped on the issue and created “Youth@Work,” aiming to teach young employees nationwide about their rights in the workplace.
Teaming with the National Restaurant Association and the National Retail Federation – groups that represented the two industries with some of the highest concentrations of younger workers – the EEOC launched the program in September 2004 at a middle school in Washington, D.C.
Two years later, the EEOC trumpeted the program had reached 128,000 students at 1,800 venues. Yet that’s where the tallying stopped.
Even after launching Youth@Work, the EEOC failed to collect birthdates from employees filing sexual harassment complaints. While staff can hold up recent cases and speak anecdotally about how sexual harassment of young workers remains a problem, no one can say how Earp’s program has helped address the issue.
In hindsight, said Earp, whom President George W. Bush promoted to EEOC chairwoman, “that’s something we should have done.”
When it comes to how Youth@Work has helped students in Oregon, the agency’s regional contact, Rudy Hurtado, can’t recall making a stop in the state.
“We don’t actively seek out schools,” Furtado said, adding that he tends to make connections at conferences and later gets invited to various programs. “If that doesn’t happen, we can’t just go and say, ‘We’re coming.’”
BOLI’s caseload challenges
Oregon Bureau of Labor chief Brad Avakian says sexual harassment of young people is an important issue, yet his agency, like the EEOC, fails to track birthdates of workers who file such complaints.
In addition, Portland-area lawyers and worker-rights advocates say the strategy Avakian’s agency uses to field complaints is more likely to miss those filed by young workers.
Lynn Clark, assistant director of Portland State University’s Student Legal Center, sees a regular stream of students complaining about harassment at work. One student came through the door last year with disturbing stories about her job at a local catering company.
Clark, a former employment lawyer, saw a strong case and helped the young woman navigate the Bureau of Labor’s complaint process.
“The investigator seemed very encouraging and was inviting us to discuss settlement offers,” Clark said. “But after six months, they made a finding of ‘no discrimination.’”
Frustrated, Clark referred the student to a private lawyer, who quickly helped the young woman reach a financial settlement with the employer.
“That happens with many cases that I feel are very strong,” Clark said. “The Bureau of Labor is overburdened and overworked. … I see them finding discrimination or sexual harassment in only the most egregious cases.”
The labor bureau “triages” complaints with an aim to quickly identify strong cases, Avakian said. Those with an abundance of evidence are graded “A” and investigated, he said, while less detailed cases are rated “B” or “C” and, for the most part, tossed.
For instance, the labor bureau received 165 sexual harassment complaints in 2012 — the last full year of data — and 102 complaints were tossed for “no substantial evidence.” In the remaining cases, BOLI dropped 34 complaints when the employees’ lawyers reached a settlement or filed a lawsuit; 12 were investigated by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and 15 were closed for a variety of reasons, including “lack of jurisdiction” or the employee “refused to cooperate.”
Just two of the cases reached resolution with help from BOLI.
Avakian said that, while the system aims to efficiently weed out cases lacking sufficient evidence, he is confident his investigators contact all employees who file with BOLI and sufficiently vet their complaints.
Avakian also added that he wouldn’t be surprised if statistics in the Maine survey – one in three teens experiencing some form of sexual harassment at work – held true in Oregon.
“I can’t cite statistics, but it doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “It’s not an issue that has come up, but one I’m very interested in.”
More sexual harassment resources and information you may be interested in:
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