Harassment at work: Young employees vulnerable, should know their rights

In her mid-20s, Melanie Chalwell worked for a boss who was constantly hitting on her. Whenever she talked to him, he tried to brush up against her.

He asked Chalwell to go to his house and other places with him. At the time she thought it was funny and liked the attention.

But the Yonkers, N.Y., resident, who now works at the Danbury Fair mall, says she also knew it was inappropriate. And today, looking back on what happened, she sees the situation really was “weird.”

Many times, young people can become targets of harassment at work. Sometimes some older superiors may see them as vulnerable because of their inexperience.

“When you are younger you desperately want to keep this form of independence (employment), and you tend to absorb the abuse,” says Stephen L. Cuyjet Jr., an investigator for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

That’s why Cuyjet, EEOC lawyers and other staff visit schools across the nation. They want the youngest generation of workers to know the EEOC is there to help if they have harassment and discrimination problems on the job.

In September 2004, the EEOC announced its Youth@Work Initiative to promote equal employment opportunities for the next generation of workers. The initiative provides a national outreach and education campaign to educate young workers about their workplace rights and responsibilities.

“They don’t know they have the right to address it,” Cuyjet says, of some young people who have been harassed.

Cuyjet says young people should first tell the person who is causing the problem to stop. If that fails, they should talk to their bosses and consult company harassment policies. But if that fails or they are not sure what to do, they can contact the EEOC.

Last summer, 21.4 million people from ages 16 to 24 held jobs in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The youth work force swelled by 2.3 million from April to July – the peak month for summer employment. Nine out of 10 high school seniors work in the summer, during the school year, or both.

The EEOC has been traveling to schools, talking to youths about harassment and what to do if they’re a victim. They haven’t been to Connecticut yet, but are willing to come if called.

Charles Brown, who is assigned to the EEOC’s Philadelphia office, has told students that some tensions in the workplace are inevitable.

“When there are boys and when there are girls, when there are men and when there are women, people are going to hit people up,” Brown says. “Is it illegal to hit on someone? No, it’s not.

“If someone is hitting on you and you don’t like it, and you tell the boss and he doesn’t do something about it, that’s when it’s illegal. If someone is hitting on you and you like it, just keep it to yourself,” he says to students.

It is not uncommon for attorney Joseph Maya, of Maya & Associates P.C. LLC, to see a variety of harassment cases a week that deal with young people as the victims. The firm has offices in Westport and Fairfield, and one in New York City.

Some are sexual harassment cases, others are harassment cases involving a person’s sexual orientation or a disability – from being diabetic to being obese.

Sometimes when a person is hired they do not expose certain aspects to their employer, says Maya, of the Westport office. When an employer finds out, they can get apprehensive about having such people at risk on the job.

Employers who are unsure about a person because of their condition may try to push the person out, with tactics such as making their job difficult, rather than risk getting rid of the employee and being faced with a lawsuit.

 Often sexual harassment cases happen when a superior harasses a subordinate, says Maya. The superior knows the subordinate may be inexperienced in the work force and not know what is appropriate work conduct.

Young people view social norms in different ways. Some young people might think it is OK to discuss sex and curse at work because they do it normally, while older people realize it is not acceptable, says Maya.

“In the workplace it is not acceptable under any circumstances,” says Maya.

His firm handled a case where an 18-year-old woman was working at the Milford mall where her boss (in his early 20s) continued to hit on her and make sexual advances. She did not respond to the advances, finally going to the firm after he physically assaulted her. After police began to investigate, they found others had complained to mall security about the man harassing people.

Maya says another case involved a woman in her early 20s, just out of college, who worked for a business in New York. Her male boss was always staring at her, brushing up against her, and making comments about how sexy she looked.

She didn’t go along with the sexual advances and little by little he kept piling on more work. Eventually he fired her, saying she was incompetent.

The firm has also dealt with harassment against men. One man in his mid-20s, attending college at the time, was sexually harassed by his female boss. She constantly told him about her divorce and how she had not had sex in so long, says Maya.

She told him she thought about him a lot and asked him to come over.

The man didn’t want to get involved and did not respond to her advances. Soon the woman started to criticize his work, forcing him to resign.

Chalwell has a friend who was sexually harassed when she was in her 20s. It occurred while she was working in a supermarket in Yonkers, N.Y. Her male boss started flirting with her. Then he started smacking her butt every once in a while.

She became uncomfortable with the situation and refused his advances. Her boss started cutting her hours and talking rudely about her to other employees.

She then was suspended and hired a lawyer to help her get her job back. She got the job back, but no one believed her about what had happened.

Finally wanting to prove that her boss in fact was acting inappropriately, she confronted him and secretly taped his response, later using it against him. The grocery chain where the boss was working settled out of court with her for about $90,000.

“She did what she had to do,” says Chalwell, of her friend pressing charges. “She shouldn’t have had to deal with it.”

Maya wants all victims to realize this: Any individual who feels he or she is potentially a victim of harassment should contact the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

If a person does not want to do that, he or she should talk to someone such as a parent, teacher or someone trusted.

Maya, who helped draft New York City’s Human Rights law in the early 1990s, protecting employees in the workplace from discrimination, wants people to know they should not be afraid to make complaints and complaints should be taken seriously. He adds that 99 percent of lawyers who deal with harassment cases will give a free consultation.

To contact the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, call 1-800-477-5737 or go to their Web site at http://www.ctgov/chro/. For further information visit http://youth.eeoc.gov, or send an e-mail to Youth.AtWork@eeoc.gov, or call (202)663-4624.

Knight Ridder Newspapers contributed to this story.
Contact Heather Barr
at hbarr@newstimes.com
or at (203) 731-3331.