Before school ends, teens should learn basic workers’ rights in time for summer jobs

The school year’s almost done, and it’s just about summer: the season of lifeguards, landscapers and labor lawyers. Yes, labor lawyers, because right about now, people like me are particularly valuable to young people entering the workforce for the first time, whether in summer jobs or first jobs after graduation.

“They didn’t tell me how much I’ll be paid. How can I find out?”

“There’s another kid doing the same job as me. I’m getting minimum wage, but he’s an unpaid intern. Is that allowed?”

“Can the boss keep the cash from the tip jar?”

“They gave me a noncompete to sign; what does it mean?”

Teaching high school students about the rights they have when they enter the workforce will help them be more knowledgeable in navigating job experiences going into adulthood.

These are the kinds of questions I often get from teenagers and 20-somethings around this time of year. I respond like an overeager librarian, forwarding websites, cases and articles, showering them with information because they generally have no idea about their rights on the job. These newcomers to the world of work often don’t even know enough to ask me some of the most critical questions: How can I tell if my workplace is safe? If I’m doing a good job, can they still fire me? How can I form or join a union?

We badly need education about workplace rights as part of high school curricula in the United States. We currently have no systematic way of imparting this practical, necessary information. Young people should know the broad outlines of laws protecting workers and the governmental and nongovernmental resources available to help with job-related problems.

Teaching high school students about the rights they have when they enter the workforce will help them be more knowledgeable in navigating job experiences going into adulthood, which is important, particularly because there’s a tremendous imbalance of power between employers and workers. Employers control people’s livelihoods: whether they can pay rent, put food on the table or have health insurance. Unions help un-skew that power disparity, but outdated labor laws and fierce anti-union campaigns have resulted in the lowest union membership rate in decades (around 6 percent for private sector workers). The decrease is despite the highest levels of public support for unions in decades, according to a 2021 Gallup poll, with more than two-thirds of survey respondents saying they approve of unions.

Knowledge alone isn’t power, but a lack of knowledge certainly exacerbates the current power imbalance between workers and corporations. Many employers have in-house or retained counsel or at least ready access to legal advice; they often have sophisticated knowledge about the legalities of the employment relationships they enter into, sometimes requiring workers to sign fine-print contracts as a condition of the job.

Meanwhile, many workers don’t even know the basics. Some introductory information would at least start addressing the knowledge asymmetry that currently exists — and would help set the right tone from the get-go.

In fact, young people are particularly vulnerable in relation to certain kinds of violations. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that young workers are at an increased risk for workplace injuries and fatalities. In 2018, the rate of occupational injuries treated in emergency rooms for workers ages 15-19 was over two times greater than for workers 25 and older, according to the CDC.

There’s a lot of controversy about what should and should not be taught in schools these days. But everyone should be able to agree that basic workplace rights education is unquestionably needed.

The facts of these cases are grisly. When I was the labor bureau chief in the New York State Attorney General’s Office, our team brought charges against a farm on which a 14-year-old boy was killed. He’d been operating a skid-loader, heavy machinery prohibited by child labor laws. He was found under the machine’s hydraulic lift, his chest and abdomen crushed. (The employer ultimately pled guilty.) In another case, a teenager’s arm was severed when he was assigned to clean machinery (again, prohibited for minors) in a small-town restaurant in upstate New York. And at temp agencies, workers are often provided with no training by either the agency or the job placement. This is a recipe for workplace danger, as documented in the devastating film “A Day’s Work,” about 21-year-old temp worker Day Davis, killed during his first day at a Florida Bacardi bottling plant.

Young workers are also susceptible to other violations as well. Child labor laws limit the number of hours minors can work, especially during the school year. But employers, including major companies, sometimes make kids work way too many hours. For example, a large Burger King franchisee, a Dunkin’ franchisee and Wendy’s have all been found in violation of child labor laws. In 2020, Chipotle paid nearly $2 million in a settlement based on thousands of child labor violations, among other infrastructures.

Students or recent graduates are also more likely to be in low-level jobs mislabeled as unpaid internships or similar exploitative situations in which the employer benefits considerably from the person’s labor. At the same time, the intern doesn’t even get scanned real experience. Young people, by definition, have limited experience learning how to advocate for themselves as they navigate the challenges that invariably arise at work. They may also be more susceptible to other kinds of abuses, like sexual harassment, from people who are in power. Teens also need to learn to conduct themselves appropriately so that they aren’t unknowingly the perpetrators of harassment.

There’s a lot of controversy about what should and should not be taught in schools these days. But everyone should be able to agree that basic workplace rights education is unquestionably needed and applicable for pretty much every single student. Toward the end of the year, just a few classroom hours, along with guidance about resources for learning more, would be invaluable. And there are already resources out there that could be used as a starting point.

Early job experiences have the potential to shape people’s approaches and conceptions of work for years to come; arming young people with knowledge as they begin that journey could go a long way. And it’s plain that young workers are hungry for this information and for better conditions at work, as the Amazon and Starbucks workers organizing unions in their workplaces clearly demonstrate.

But for a more immediate bonus, think about this: Students often zone out in the last few weeks of classes. They might perk up to learn how much money they should be making when they step out the schoolhouse door in June. Calculating that is a fun math problem to solve!

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