‘Quiet on Set’ highlighted sexual assault of minors in Hollywood. But this workplace issue hits close to home, too.

“Quiet on Set” shed light on longstanding allegations of sexual harassment and assault at Nickelodeon Studios.

Social media erupted as the documentary aired on Max last month, revealing a slew of allegations regarding sexual misconduct at work. This time was different than the #MeToo resurgence in the 2010s and the creation of Times Up, however, in that the conversation largely centered kids, tweens, teens and very young adults.

As shocking as it may have been for viewers to know the backstories of the actors, writers and producers behind seminal kids’ programming in the 1990s and 2010s, harassment of this nature is somewhat commonplace.

Publicized U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission settlements suggest sexual harassment of minors is an issue occurring on many street corners in America — in urban, rural and suburban environments alike. 

The Center for American Progress analyzed sexual harassment charges filed between fiscal years 2005 and 2015; while 1.6% of charges were filed in arts, entertainment and recreation, about 12% were filed in healthcare and social assistance, as well as in manufacturing. More than 13% were filed in retail, and more than 14% were filed in accommodation and food services.

Workers in the food service industry file significantly more sexual harassment charges than those in some other fields, data shows. 

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Fast-food franchises in particular appear to be a hotbed for cases that involve young workers — something EEOC attorneys have also underscored. “We see a lot of our cases that involve harassment of teens coming out of the restaurant and fast-food industries,” EEOC Commissioner Kalpana Kotagal told HR Dive. 

She also noted that a focus on protecting young workers is timely with summer on the horizon, as teenagers embark on job searches and business leaders seek seasonal help.

Why teen workers in food service are vulnerable

A manager at a Sammamish, Wash., restaurant allegedly sexually assaulted a 17-year-old employee, made unwelcome sexual comments and requests for sex, and isolated employees by trapping them in the restaurant walk-in refrigerator. 

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A few factors leave teens especially vulnerable to sexual harassment at work, according to Kotagal. 

The restaurant industry is “characterized often by cultures that tolerate alcohol consumption and pay that is tied to customer satisfaction,” she said. The commissioner mentioned a Chipotle case settled last fall where a manager allegedly sexually assaulted a 17-year-old employee, made unwelcome sexual comments and requests for sex, and isolated employees by trapping them in the restaurant walk-in refrigerator. That case ended with Chipotle paying $400,000 in total to three former crew members at a Washington location.

The employees reported the harassment to their general manager, who “failed to adequately investigate the complaints, and obviously didn’t take appropriate remedial action,” Kotagal said. 

EEOC has pursued a number of allegations of sexual misconduct against minors in the industry in recent years.

In the EEOC press releases for many such cases, attorneys not only condemned sex-based discrimination but highlighted the fact teenagers are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment in the food service industry. Anna Park, regional attorney for EEOC’s Los Angeles District Office, has often been a voice in such cases in her district. 

She told HR Dive employers should hold themselves to a higher standard “particularly when you have people coming into the workforce for the first time.” Often, new employees are not trained on how to report harassment.

“They don’t know this isn’t a part of the experience, so they don’t know how to react,” Park said, adding that the power imbalance that often exists — a manager harassing an employee for example — adds to the distress. “They don’t know what to do.”

A plane carries a banner past the corporate headquarters of McDonald’s as workers, joined by other activists, protest sexual harassment at the fast-food chain’s restaurants on Sept. 18, 2018, in Chicago. Similar actions which took place around the country and were touted as the first-ever nationwide “strike” against sexual harassment in the fast-food industry.

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“These are often workers in their first or second jobs, who are perhaps less aware of laws or norms and are therefore, more vulnerable,” Kotagal said. “They may not be able to or lack the confidence to complain.”

Park said this type of harassment has seemed more pervasive in the last five years, highlighting a pending case against Swami’s Café and Honey’s Bistro, where a class of young workers, including teenagers allegedly were harassed by co-workers and supervisors. She also referenced to a case involving Fairbanks Ranch Country Club, where a restaurant manager allegedly sexually harassed “a class of young female servers almost daily” according to the EEOC report. The country club paid workers $125,000 to settle that claim. There also was a case involving a Los Angeles Del Taco location, where the general manager and shift leader allegedly sexually harassed teenage workers and retaliated against them. Del Taco paid $1,250,000 to settle that claim.

Like Kotagal, Park highlighted the fact that employers are often found not to have handled complaints effectively. Leaders may also incidentally create a culture of disrespect, Park said.

“I have found it rarely is about one person and manifests with other people — prior employees, current employees,” Park said, adding that if higher-ups participate in harassment, it “sends a message that it’s okay for people below to do it.”

Park emphasized that experiencing sexual harassment at work leaves “an indelible mark on these young workers because it shapes how they view the workforce going forward.”

Fast-food workers may be overlooked in activism

The EEOC, for the first time, identified teenagers in low-wage jobs as a vulnerable worker population in its most recent strategic enforcement plan, Kotagal said.

While the EEOC is prioritizing “individuals who are new to the workforce,” young workers may be overlooked by mainstream anti-harassment movements.

The resurgence of #MeToo, a movement founded by Tarana Burke in 2007, and the advent of the Times Up movement have undeniably made an impact on how the public thinks about sexual harassment at work.

McDonald’s workers in the U.S. have very publicly engaged in strikes to protest sexual harassment. Committees, comprised of women who had filed EEOC complaints about their McDonald’s franchises, walked out in 2018; other workers located in the southeastern U.S. and the Midwest walked out in 2021. Fight for $15 and other labor organizations also have long called out McDonald’s, with internationally oriented groups cataloging gender-based violence in Australia, Europe and the Americas.

McDonald’s workers are joined by other activists as they march toward the company’s Chicago headquarters to protest sexual harassment in 2018.

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In fact, one 2022 EEOC document centers fiscal year 2018 because that period is when the #MeToo movement went viral and received international attention.

But when asked about whether these movements have improved conditions for certain populations, Park said the impact wasn’t equal across the board. “When you’re talking about the fast-food industry or farm workers, it hasn’t really had the same impact. That’s not to say a lot of women in the entertainment, broadcast and movie industries weren’t suffering silently, and taking it, and then they spoke up,” Park said. “But there are lots of industries where, you know, when the economy goes down, there’s layoffs […] that makes people go silent.”

The food service industry isn’t the only place where teens experience harassment. Take grocery stores, for example: a Safeway Companies store in San Diego and a Kroger location in Little Rock, Arkansas, both faced lawsuits over sexual harassment claims involving young workers.

Retail may also be an area of concern. A Center for American Progress analysis shows that retail has had historically had a high share of the sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC. And per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, youth workers, including minors, continue to be highly represented in retail.

“We just have to be more vigilant and remind employers: This is really a heightened responsibility on their part. If you’re going to employ young people, [employers] have a higher responsibility to make sure they’re protected.”

Anna Park

EEOC Los Angeles District Office Regional Attorney

Internal issues? Don’t stick your head in the sand.

Park’s advice to employers and people leaders is to address issues head-on. “It’s okay to find the problem,” the attorney said. “Deal with it instead of trying to stick your head in the sand and pretend it’s not there.”

A proactive approach may be especially crucial when dealing with teenagers. “We just have to be more vigilant and remind employers: This is really a heightened responsibility on their part. If you’re going to employ young people, [employers] have a higher responsibility to make sure they’re protected,” Park said.

Kotagal said it’s important for young workers to know where to lodge a complaint about sexual harassment, so it can be heard effectively. “It’s often managers who are the ones that we see who are abusing their power. That’s part of why it’s so important for employers to have multiple avenues and methods for reporting harassment,” the commissioner said. “So that an employee is not out of luck if their harasser happens to be their manager.”

McDonald’s workers, joined by other activists, protest sexual harassment at the fast-food chain’s restaurants outside of the company’s headquarters on Sept. 18, 2018, in Chicago.

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Beyond ensuring that workers know where to turn when reporting harassment, employers can also diversify the methods of reporting. 

“The one thing we’ve been pushing for — particularly with a workforce that’s very tech savvy — is to have an online complaint process for discrimination,” Park said, noting that off-the-shelf apps exist to help people voice those serious concerns. 

Additionally, 1-800 numbers are another way to facilitate reporting. “We still do that depending on the size of the operation, and the savviness employer,” Park said, referring to agreements with employers to resolve claims. “We try to tailor our relief to what makes sense.”

And when internal reporting fails, Park said workers are encouraged to come right to EEOC. Even before a case gets filed, individuals can speak with agency investigators for free or engage in EEOC mediation programs, which can sometimes resolve issues more quickly, she said.

“If it’s bad, we’ll do a commissioner’s charge, we’ll get the information and ask one of our political appointees to sign it. We did that against Activision,” Park said.

HR has a crucial role to play

Park emphasized that she values HR’s role in this area — when they can actually do their job. “We’ve had cases where human resource individuals did the right thing and were retaliated against,” she said. (Notably, recent EEOC data indicates that about 4 in 10 sexual harassment charges are filed concurrently with retaliation charges.)

Beyond HR being a potential target for retaliation, the department has also fallen victim to budget cuts, which can leave vulnerable workers even more at risk. “I think that’s where we have this up and down. People make economic decisions and they end up paying for it,” Park said. 

“I think it’s very easy for employers to think that a strong human resource department is fungible, but it’s absolutely necessary for a company to survive,” she said. Sacrificing HR is “one of those instances that they call ‘a penny wise, but a pound foolish.’”