By Leigh Strope
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - The government says it is pursuing more lawsuits against employers accused of sexual harassment and discrimination against teen workers.
It has begun a national campaign to educate youth about their rights at work.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says about 40 lawsuits related to teen sexual harassment or discrimination have been filed or settled since 2002.
Only "a handful" of suits involving teens were filed in previous years, commission spokesman David Grinberg said last week. The agency is just starting to track such lawsuits and complaints, so earlier figures were not available.
EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, age or disability. The commission investigates complaints and pursues legal remedies for those with merit, if settlements cannot be reached. The EEOC files roughly 400 lawsuits a year.
EEOC thinks more awareness is needed. Most of the agency's recent suits involving teens are on behalf of young women complaining of sexual harassment by managers, such as lewd comments and inappropriate touching.
The jobs are in industries that employ many younger workers: restaurants, retailers, hotels and movie theaters. Turnover often is high, and many managers, often young themselves, aren't trained to avoid or recognize harassment and discrimination, Grinberg said.
More than half of the EEOC's 40 suits over the last two years involved the restaurant industry.
"In an industry of 12 million people, this is a small amount of anecdotal evidence," said Sue Hensley, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, which is participating in EEOC's new outreach effort. "However, we certainly feel strongly about the importance of this program and that it will be beneficial to teens in this industry." The awareness campaign includes visits and presentations at high schools nationwide. Educational videos and materials, including bilingual comic books are being distributed to educate young workers about their rights at work.
EEOC has a Web site on the issue, http://youth.eeoc.gov.
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