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More Sex-Harassment Suits Involve Teenage Girls

Sep 5, 2004 | Denver Post Most charges of harassment and discrimination never turn into lawsuits. Among those that do, however, is a rising number of sexual harassment cases that bear a striking similarity: They involve teenage girls who work in the restaurant industry.

"These (teens) are not going to have a lot of work experience to guide them," said Lynn Bruner, regional director for the St. Louis office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has brought several such cases in the past few years.

"They're not going to know what is acceptable and unacceptable types of behavior," she said. "It's unlikely they will have a lot of information about what their legal workplace rights are."

A recent case was filed in St. Louis against Indianapolis-based Steak n Shake Co.

Amanda Nichols, now 20, worked for the diner chain in the St. Louis area three years ago.

What started as flirtatious comments turned vulgar, Nichols said. A touch here, a pinch there.

Then, after several months and multiple complaints to managers, she said, the harassing co-worker threatened to kill her if she told anyone he tried to force himself on her.

"Still being 17, I really was believing that these people had me in their best interests, and they didn't," she said of her managers. "Because of everything that happened, it absolutely makes me paranoid. I don't sit on my porch at night. I don't walk to my car by myself. I feel crazy saying it, but I'm absolutely convinced that somebody is following me."

Steak n Shake disputes the allegations and still employs the man at the center of Nichols' accusations.

Sex-harassment accusations by teens are on the rise in Denver, too, said Jeanette Leino, director for the EEOC's local office. However, no recent teen sexual harassment lawsuits have been filed.

"Although we haven't filed lawsuits, we have had cases where there are violations of the law but we've been able to settle them," she said.

The agency won't discuss claims unless they go to court.

The EEOC is tasked with enforcing U.S. harassment and discrimination laws, including those covering sex, age, race, national origin, religion and disabilities.

Of more than 80,000 complaints in fiscal 2003, the agency took 300 to court, 16 of which involved sexual harassment charges by workers in food service.

Most were teens.

The EEOC doesn't regularly track ages of people who file sexual harassment charges. But it is pursuing more cases.

More wind up in court

Of 13,566 sexual harassment charges filed in fiscal 2003, the EEOC determined 1,148 warranted a reasonable cause for action, and it took 117 cases to court.

Ten years earlier, 14,420 sexual harassment charges were filed, the EEOC determined reasonable cause for 520 and took 74 cases to court. The numbers don't include lawsuits brought through private attorneys.

The EEOC has no formula for when it files suit. Often it goes after cases it views to be the most severe, that have more than one alleged victim, or that may result in a policy change.

Teens seeking their first taste of the working world often bus tables, work cash registers or serve fancy coffee drinks. In fact, 44.6 percent of food service workers are 24 or younger, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One in five is age 16 to 19.

Often that means teens themselves are answering to teens or young adults. Turnover is high, and many managers aren't properly trained to recognize or avoid discrimination, including sexual harassment, said Jennifer Kaplan, spokeswoman at EEOC's Washington headquarters.

Especially in a first or second job, teens may not recognize what's illegal because some of what's illegal isn't uncommon behavior at school, said Patricia McMahon in Denver's EEOC office, who visits area high schools to teach students about sexual harassment.

"Teenagers don't equate inappropriate sophomoric behavior that they encounter at school as sex harassment in the workplace, such as bra- snapping," she said.

Even when teens like Nichols recognize the harassment, they weigh it against other aspects of the job, such as making new friends and making money.

On the day Nichols interviewed at Steak n Shake, she remembers a man walked by who smiled and raised his eyebrows. A week or so later, that man a cook started pulling on her apron and grabbing her from behind, Nichols said. She asked him to stop and told him she had a boyfriend.

"I was annoyed then," she said. "I'm the kind of person who would put him in his place. He would just never back down."

Nichols said she complained multiple times to an assistant manager as well as his boss, but nothing changed.

Late one night, after three months on the job, the cook followed her to her car, she said.

He asked her out. She refused, and he pushed harder, blocking her access to the car.

"Basically he told me I couldn't go home until I gave him oral sex."

He pulled her apron off and unbuttoned her shirt. He twisted her wrist, she said.

"I was scared. I thought I was going to be murdered or raped at the time," Nichols said.

He exposed himself and rubbed against her, she said. She cried and almost threw up.

The cook pulled away, Nichols said, then threatened to kill her if she told anyone about the incident.

Nichols confided in one co-worker.

"If you go to the police, the chances (are he'd spend) a couple of days in jail then he's free? And he's pissed off? No way," Nichols said.

She put in her two weeks' notice, but before leaving the job, she had another confrontation with the cook. Again she complained to the assistant manager who, she said, told her the general manager believed it best Nichols leave, and she did.

That's when Nichols told her parents.

"A model employee"

The EEOC and Nichols are co-plaintiffs in the case against Steak n Shake. They're seeking lost wages, damages for emotional distress, and for the court to order the company to remedy a hostile environment, which may include policy changes.

Steak n Shake disputes the charges, said its attorney Bob Tomaso of St. Louis-based Blackwell Sanders.

"Steak n Shake approached the alleged harasser, talked with him, got his side of the story, reminded him of its policy, and Ms. Nichols never came back to work," he said. "He's still employed ... and he's a model employee."

Tomaso would not allow contact with the man.

He said Steak n Shake trains its workers to recognize and avoid sexual harassment and posts an 800 number in its restaurants for workers to call if they feel threatened, he said.

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