Our Kids and the Workplace

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Thousands of children will go to work with their mothers or fathers on Ms. Magazine’s “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day” in April. Most of the kids will spend the day in a white-collar enclave, the sort of place they may hope or expect to inhabit in four or eight or 10 years. But much sooner, many of them will be going to work in places that are considerably less well-mannered — fast-food restaurants and large chain retail stores — and they will be ill prepared for what lies ahead.

The daughter of a friend of mine works in one such place, a fast-food restaurant. A few weeks ago, my friend asked me if the laws against sexual harassment apply to 16 year olds. She came to learn that the 19-year-old assistant manager (and scheduler) was hitting on her daughter. Her daughter was holding him off, but she knew her time was running out.

This girl’s experience is not uncommon. In early December, the Washington Post reported that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had filed a lawsuit on behalf of a 17-year-old high school student and part-time waitress against a St. Louis fast-food restaurant, Steak ’n Shake Operations. A cook had grabbed, threatened and exposed himself to her, she alleged, and when she complained, the manager suggested it would be better if she quit. This was the commission’s 25th sexual harassment lawsuit on behalf of teens in 2004, up from eight in 2002.