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Calif. to Teach Kids Labor Laws to Protect Against Exploitation 

13 Oct, 2023 Liz Carey

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Sacramento, CA ( – A new law in California will require schools to teach teens about workers’ rights as nationwide children are more likely to suffer workplace injuries, statistics show.  

The new program, “Workplace Readiness Week,” will occur every April and teach juniors and seniors in high school about their rights as employees, including how workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, sick leave, disability insurance and other programs work, as well as the difference between employees and independent contractors, wage and hour regulations, and unionization regulations.  

The bill, introduced by Assembly member Liz Ortega, was sponsored by the California Labor Federation, GenUp, and the California Federation of Teachers, as well as several other labor and youth groups. During a hearing earlier this year, witnesses talked about their safety concerns being dismissed by employers.  

“We were paid well below minimum wage, but what was even worse was the sexual harassment and lack of safety. Store customers would wait outside for me after work,” UC Berkeley student Raquel Lopez Blanco said about her first job as a minor at a convenience store where she described wage theft, safety concerns and sexual harassment from customers. “When I told the store owners about the harassment and safety concerns, they laughed it off. When you’re young and new to the workforce, you don’t know about your rights. That’s why this legislation is so important―to make sure other young people don’t have to go through what I did.”  

Assembly member Ortega said the law was necessary to protect teens in the workplace.   

“Young people are concentrated in industries where wage theft and other labor abuses are very common,” Ortega said. “In 2021, 109 teenagers died from work-related injuries in the United States. That same year, over 33,000 teens suffered workplace injuries so severe that they needed to go to the emergency room.” 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than half (55 percent) of young people between 16 and 24 were employed as of July 2023, just barely below pre-pandemic levels of 56.2 percent in July 2019. Because of their age, they are more likely to take low wage jobs where they are more likely to be victims of wage theft and suffer on-the-job injuries, the BLS said.   

According to USAFacts, the number of children involved in labor violations has jumped 238 percent in five years, from just over 1,000 in 2015 to nearly 4,000 in 2022. That number includes about 700 children who illegally worked in hazardous environments. Federal child labor law includes a basic minimum age of 16, restrictions on working hours and occupations for 14- and 15-year-olds and protections against children working in hazardous work. Employers can be fined up to $15,138 per child, officials said, but many federal officials have complained the fine is too small to “be a deterrent for major profitable companies.” 

In recent months, several national companies have been fined for child labor violations. In July in Chandler, Minn., food manufacturer Monogram Meat Snack, LLC was fined for employing at least two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old in violation of federal child laws prohibiting children from working in hazardous industries.  

In February, Packers Sanitation Services, Inc. (PSSI) was fined more than $15,000 per child, an estimated $1.5 million, by the U.S. Department of Labor for employing at least 102 children between the ages of 13 and 17. The children were employed in eight states to work in overnight shifts at 13 meat processing plants like JBS and Tyson, to do hazardous work like cleaning razor-sharp claws and other equipment that posed a high safety risk, the department said.  

And in August, two Utah Chick-Fil-A restaurants were fined more than $187,000 for allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to work too many hours and past permitted times, and for not paying overtime.  

At the same time, some states are working to weaken child labor laws as a way to combat the labor shortages businesses are experiencing. Legislators in at least 14 states in the past two years have pushed through legislation easing child labor laws, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In March, Arkansas legislation removed a requirement for age verification and work certificates for employees under 16, and in Iowa, legislation expanded the hours of employment teens under 16 could work during the school year, while also making it legal for 16- and 17-year-olds eligible to serve alcohol and work in certain hazardous activities.  

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    About The Author

    • Liz Carey

      Liz Carey has worked as a writer, reporter and editor for nearly 25 years. First, as an investigative reporter for Gannett and later as the Vice President of a local Chamber of Commerce, Carey has covered everything from local government to the statehouse to the aerospace industry. Her work as a reporter, as well as her work in the community, have led her to become an advocate for the working poor, as well as the small business owner.

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