By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/7/2010 10:16:07 AM ET 2010-06-07T14:16:07

Martha, 15, believes she was a victim of sexual harassment when she worked as a ski instructor last winter for a New Jersey resort, but she didn’t feel she could complain.

Her 60-year old manager didn’t assault her but he was “just creepy,” said Martha, who did not want her full name used. “He would put his arm around me and hold my shoulder. He would whisper in my ear, ‘Sweetie,’” she explained. “I could feel his breath in my ear.”

It was one of the first jobs she had ever had, so Martha — who was 14 at the time — asked her parents what she should do. “My mom was upset about it but my dad said, ‘Wait a while and see,’” she said.

Since the ski season was about to end, and Martha had no plans to work at the resort again, she decided to drop it and never went to her managers.

As teenagers get ready to head out to the nation’s malls, restaurants and resorts to start summer jobs, government officials and teen advocates want to caution young workers — and their parents — that sexual harassment is rampant in the workplace.

But getting girls and boys to report such acts has been a challenge because some teens are just too immature or ignorant of their rights. Others want to do well in those first gigs and not rock the boat.

“It continues to be an epidemic in many workplaces, restaurants, retails, etc., where young people work,” said Mary O’Neill, a regional attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for the Phoenix district covering Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.

Indeed, most teenagers never report such behavior, experts said, because many teens are either too embarrassed or just don’t realize that legally they don’t have to put up with such sleazy behavior.

The official EEOC numbers on teen sexual harassment charges are only about 107 as of May 18. That compares to 237 charges of sexual harassment against kids 19 and younger for all of 2009. (Date of birth is not required when filing such charges with the EEOC.)

O’Neill believes the numbers are much higher and said the data is just the “tip of the iceberg.” Teens, she added, are less likely than adults to blow the whistle on such acts.

“They just think, ‘This is my first job, so this is what I have to tolerate,’” she said.

Companies hit by lawsuits
Such cases show up at major companies such as Burger King, McDonalds, Starbucks and Ruby Tuesday, just to name a few.

Last March, Burger King agreed to pay $85,000 to settle a teen sexual harassment suit with the EEOC.

“The harassment included unwelcome touching, overt sexual advances, and frequent requests for sexual favors. The suit further asserted that (the teenaged worker) complained about the harassment to her assistant managers, who failed to take appropriate action to stop the unlawful conduct,” according to the EEOC filing.

And in November, Ruby Tuesday agreed to pay $225,000 to settle a case with the EEOC involving a general manager who subjected female employees, including teens, to “crude sexual propositions” and “sexually explicit and graphic remarks.”

“Sexual harassment is always unacceptable, but when some of the victims are vulnerable teenagers, it is especially unconscionable,” said EEOC’s Acting Chairman Stuart Ishimaru at the time the settlement was announced.

What O’Neill has found in her investigations is that it’s typically one teen with a strong adult in their lives who’s most likely to come forward. When the agency begins to investigate, she added, more teens often come forward saying they also were harassed.

In one case, a manager was sexually harassing boys who were all 15 and 16, asking them for sex and grabbing their private parts, but no one came forward until one boy’s grandfather forced him to. “He was so embarrassed,” O’Neill said, “but the grandfather said, ‘You have to complain.’”

Teens targeted
E.J. Graff, associate director and senior researcher for Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, has long researched the issue of teens and harassment at work. She estimates based on government and independent reports that as many as 200,000 teens are harassed or assaulted at work every year.

“My sense from my reporting is there are sexual predators that figured out places where teens work in the summer are candy shops for them,” she said.

Making matters worse, many teens are more accessible than ever thanks to social networking sites and mobile devices, opening them up to more potential abuse.

“We have had a couple of cases where the individual was ‘texted’ late night by their supervisor, with subtle or not-so-subtle overtures,” said Teresa Bult, an employment attorney for Constangy, Brooks & Smith, a firm that represent employers.

“The younger employees, teenagers, don't quite know how to deal with this type of text message, and most don't seem to report it until later, when someone else raises a harassment charge against the same person,” she said. “In two cases, the younger employee didn't raise it until they were interviewed as a witness after another complaint.”

But the courts as they pertain to minors in the workplace often view the laws differently, Bult said.  For example, even if a teen consented to sex with an adult manager, it is still considered statutory rape because the teen was underaged.

In the case of a teen flirting with a boss who is making sexual advances, Bult added, if a sexual harassment claim is brought, the courts may find that the boss and the company were at fault even if actual intercourse did not occur. The thinking is that the adult should have known better, she said.

While the thought of our kids being harassed at work is scary, most teens will survive their first forays into the workplace unscathed by unsavory sexual behavior. And working is a great experience for teens and can build confidence and responsibility, according to a study done by Jeylan Mortimer, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota.

But teens need information before they punch their first time clock.

That means parents, the education system, and governments need to do what they can to help protect teens when they head into the workplace, Graff said.

“There are workshops and lessons for kindergartners and first-graders on good touch, bad touch and saying no, but we need more sophisticated lessons at 12, 13, 14, 15, 16,” Graff said. “We don’t offer that, and that’s when they start developing. Their bodies look different than their minds.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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