Employers Often Fail to Protect Young Workers

By Staff Report

Nov. 8, 2006

The case of former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley and his salacious electronic messages to teenage congressional pages has grabbed headlines and, depending on the outcome of tomorrow’s election, might even have shifted the balance of power in Washington.

But Capitol Hill is not the only place in America where problems occur when teenage workers mingle with adults who take advantage of age and power to sexually harass them. Lots of employers are in similar situations—and they often are no more adept at dealing with them than Congress has been, workplace experts say.

Generation Y’s ability to find information on the Internet means that they often know more about how they should be treated at work than their supervisors do, says Michael Cohen, an attorney in the employment services group at WolfBlock in Philadelphia.

“To think that they don’t understand or appreciate their rights is a colossal mistake,” says Cohen. Some 3 million young people ages 15 to 17 are in the labor force during the school year, says Cohen, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics figures from 2004, the last year data for that age group was available. The number rises to 4 million in the summer, according to the BLS data.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is reaching out to that age group through its Youth at Work initiative, which has sponsored more than 1,600 employment rights events over the past two years involving 112,000 students, education professionals and employers.

The EEOC touts its success in litigating claims involving teens. In September 2005, Carmike Cinemas agreed to pay $765,000 to settle a sexual harassment charge involving young male employees and a male supervisor in Raleigh, North Carolina. In December 2004, Burger King paid $400,000 to seven female employees who were sexually harassed by a male manager in St. Louis.

Companies incur these kinds of costs when they fail to take seriously harassment training for youth and their supervisors, says Lynn Lieber, an employment lawyer and founder and CEO of Workplace Answers.

It’s especially important to reach teenagers, who are often in their first jobs and hesitant to make waves that might jeopardize future employment prospects, she says. They may know that a manager is wrong when he gropes them, but they are hesitant to defend themselves.

“It’s extremely difficult to get them to report,” Lieber says.

Making them more confident in fighting back requires communicating with them better. “Organizations need to speak to them in a language they understand,” Lieber says. Companies also should monitor interactions between supervisors and employees and respond to complaints.

A former congressional page says that the weakness of the Capitol Hill program is not the training it gives to the high school-age students who work in Congress.

The pages were told in no uncertain terms what kind of behavior would get them sent home, says Moira Whelan, who is now director of strategy and outreach at the National Security Network.

And there was no doubt that the directors of the school, dorm and work sections of the page program would protect a student’s identity if he or she reported harassment, Whelan says.

The question was what would happen next.

“There was no clear line of authority,” she says. “There was no designated advisor who could take whatever it was you had forward. It becomes no one’s job when it’s everyone’s job.”

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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