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Panda Express to pay $150K to settle federal sexual harassment claims at Hawaii restaurant

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

HONOLULU, Hawaii - A Chinese fast-food chain is paying $150,000 to settle a federal lawsuit claiming sexual harassment at a Hawaii restaurant, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced Wednesday.

Panda Express is settling a lawsuit alleging a male supervisor at the Kauai eatery sexually harassed at least three female employees who were 17 to 19 years old at the time. The alleged harassment occurred in the tourist town of Kapaa between 2007 and 2009, the EEOC said.

The women were subjected to "unwelcome physical and verbal sexual conduct that was sufficiently severe and pervasive to adversely affect the terms and conditions of the employment and create a hostile work environment," claimed the lawsuit filed in September.

One teen who reported the harassment had her hours cut and was forced to resign, the commission said, and another teen quit to avoid verbal obscenities and sexual advances.

The case highlights how vulnerable teens who are new to the workforce can be, said Timothy Riera, director of the EEOC's Honolulu office.

For some of the women, it was their first job and they didn't know where to turn, said Amrita Mallik, the office's senior trial attorney. She said they went to the police, before an aunt of one of the women told them about the EEOC.

Shaleah Rodero-Workman's aunt told her to contact the EEOC. The then-17-year-old was working as a cook and felt powerless. "It was difficult. I was so young," Rodero-Workman, now 22, said. "I didn't know what was going on."

The experience, she said, has made her stronger and more aware.

The money will be split between the three women.

The settlement also includes a two-year consent decree that requires Panda Express to implement anti-harassment measures including annual sexual harassment training for all employees on Kauai and for all general managers in the state.

The company strives to provide a safe and empowering environment for all associates, said Thien Ho, a spokeswoman for Rosemead, Calif.-based Panda Restaurant Group, Inc.

"In today's settlement with the EEOC, we reconfirm our shared mission with the EEOC to ensure that our associates continue to be protected and cared for," she said in a statement. "We appreciate the partnership of all those involved in this isolated incident to find resolution with dignity and common value in mind."

Mallik said the company should be commended for agreeing to an early settlement and taking steps to address the problem. "They're really showing a real responsibility to the workers in Hawaii," she said.

The company manages and owns nearly 1,600 restaurants in 42 states.

The women are no longer working for Panda Express. The supervisor was terminated shortly after the EEOC's investigation, but Mallik did not know the reason.

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Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at http://www.twitter.com/jenhapa.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/the-canadian-press/130529/panda-express-pay-150k-settle-federal-sexual-harassment-clai