What to Do When Sexual Harassment Targets Teenage Workers

A McDoanld's location at dusk with illuminated signs

Whether as summer jobs or shifts after school, teenagers are increasingly part of the workforce. In fast food restaurants, grocery stores, and offices across the country, teens interact with older supervisors and managers that teach them what it means to be an employee. But when the lessons turn sour, young employees can learn the wrong message. They may never hear what to do when sexual harassment targets teenage workers.

In this blog post, I will review a lawsuit by the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund against McDonald’s for sexual harassment targeting teenage workers. I will discuss how minors can pursue Title VII civil rights claims, and what their parents need to know to protect their rights.

Young Employees Work in Industries with High Sexual Harassment

Teenagers’ early working environments are more than just jobs, they are classrooms. They teach teens how to be employees and what is expected of them at work. So when sexual harassment targets teenage workers the lesson comes out all wrong, teaching young employees that sexual harassment and violence is normal, when really it is illegal.

Teenage employees often find their first jobs in hospitality or retail. Unfortunately, these industries have the highest number of sexual harassment complaints of any public sector. Between 2005 and 2015, 14.23% of all sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) can from the hospitality and food services industry. 13.44% were from retail trade companies. One study of adolescent employees showed that 63% of girls and 37% of boys who work part-time have experienced sexual harassment by supervisors, coworkers, and others at work.

Teenage Workers Have Protection Under Title VII

When sexual harassment targets teenage workers, it triggers all the same protections as if the victim had been an adult. Teens (and their parents) expect their employers to take it seriously when they report sexual harassment by superiors or coworkers. If they don’t, underage employees can file complaints with the EEOC or in federal court through their parents for sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and any retaliation that happened after they reported the conduct to their employers.

That’s exactly what the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund (housed at the National Women’s Law Center), the labor group Fight for $15, and the American Civil Liberties Union have done. Earlier this year, the organizations filed 23 new complaints against McDonald’s on behalf of employees facing sexual harassment: 20 with the EEOC and 3 federal lawsuits. The legal action included four teenage workers, including Brittany Hoyos.

Parents May Not Hear About Sexual Harassment Until It Is Too Late

Brittany didn’t tell her parents about what was happening at work at first. When she started working at McDonald’s at age 16 in 2016, she said her manager began harassing her almost right away. He touched her hair, brushed up against her, texted her about her appearance, and even tried to kiss her after offering her a ride home. But she hid the behavior. Her complaint says:

“I was embarrassed. . . . I felt like I was at fault or that I had done something wrong.”

It was her first job. She told the New York Times interviewer:

“I just thought that was something you would have to put up with.”

But when she came home from work crying, her parents learned that she had been suffering months of verbal harassment. They contacted the franchise, demanding that the manager be held accountable. Instead, Brittany became the subject of retaliation, according to the complaint. She was eventually fired. Her mother, who also worked at the restaurant, also came under fire for standing up for her daughter’s rights. She lost her management training as was demoted to a minimum-wage crew member with fewer hours. Eventually, she quit too.

It is not uncommon for teenage workers to stay quiet when they become the targets of sexual harassment. As Dr. Heather Hlavka, a professor of criminology and sociology at Marquette University, explained to Slate:

“But among teenagers, reporting is very, very low. Because developmentally, you start to be aware of all these cultural things and barriers that stand in your way. But you know, no matter what your age, you always want to be included. You don’t want to feel isolated or like you don’t belong, whether it’s high school parties, fraternity parties, college campuses, or your workplace. And if you report people who are close to you, you could lose all of that, not to mention get someone close to you in trouble.”

What to Do When Sexual Harassment Targets Teenage Workers

That is why it is so important for parents to act when they do learn of sexual harassment targeting teenage workers. Support your daughter or son, making sure they know this kind of behavior is not okay. Encourage them to object to the behavior at work and to talk to their supervisor. You should also help them by sending a written complaint to the manager or owner of the business, requesting action against the offending employee. If and when your teen starts to experience retaliation, you need to be there for them through that too. Make sure they know you don’t think it is their fault.

You should also talk to an experienced employment discrimination attorney as soon as you believe the employer isn’t going to respond to your complaints. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our sexual harassment attorneys can help you and your teenager review what happened, and understand your legal options. We will help you file a complaint with the EEOC or federal court against the corporation or franchise owner, and we will be there to help you get the relief you deserve. If you or your child are facing sexual harassment at work, contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

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