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Youth and Child Labor

UE News, July 2000

By David Kotelchuck

Youth and child labor ...

This summer an estimated 4 million young people ages 15-17 are working. During the school year about 2.9 million will be working. About a third of them are paid at or below the minimum wage. If they are not injured or abused on the job, and if the job doesn’t interfere with their schoolwork, it will probably be a good experience — they are earning some money and learning a bit about the world of work.

The problem is though that many will be injured on the job, and some will lose their lives.

In fact, 200,000 to 300,000 of these young men and women will be injured on the job this year, according to a report on the youth labor force released this summer by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. ("Report on the Youth Labor Force," BLS, June 2000, Of those injured on the job, an estimated 11,000 will suffer lost-time injuries, and about 67 will die, based on figures from 1992-1997.

Where are these young people working, and which are the most dangerous jobs for them? During the summer months, about half of teenagers 15-17 years (51 percent) work in retail businesses, 30 percent work in services jobs, with only 7.7 percent in agriculture and 6.7 percent in construction. However, almost half (43 percent) of the fatalities suffered by these young workers are in agriculture, mostly caused by accidents with farm machinery. Fourteen percent of the fatalities occur in construction jobs, most of them in falls from roofs and skylights, electrocutions or being struck by falling objects. Finally 19 percent of the teenage deaths occur in retail jobs, mostly as a result of violence during robberies.

Comparing the relative risks of these teenagers being killed on the job to those of adult workers 25-44 years of age, a young worker 14-17 years of age has a 4.5 times greater chance of being killed on an agricultural job than an adult, but 24 percent less chance of being killed on a non-agricultural job. In looking at the dangers of farm work, we can’t forget that many of these young people are working on family farms where the family farm is threatened by competition with large agribusiness companies, so everyone on the farm is scrambling to pitch in and keep up the work pace. And as we know from our own industrial workplaces, speedup kills and injures.

As for construction work, although there is an elevated risk of a fatality of a teenager compared to other types of work, the danger of loss of life is no greater for the young worker in construction than for the adult. However, the high rates of job injuries and fatalities for all construction workers could be lowered if OSHA paid more attention to enforcement of health and safety regulations at construction sites. (OSHA is just starting to respond to longstanding demands by construction unions for just that.)


While workers age 17 and younger represent a few percent of the workforce, their reported lost-time injuries on the job represent only 0.6 percent of all reported lost-time injuries on the job. What’s more, almost all of these reported injuries are reported to occur among 16 and 17 year old employees, according to the BLS report.

This is a tip-off that some things are amiss with the teenage employment and injury figures. How is it possible that the BLS reports 4 million teenagers 14-17 years of age are working during summers, but that 97.3 percent (their figure) of all the reported lost-time injuries are occurring among the 16 and 17-year-olds?! After all, the 14 and 15-year-olds are even less experienced at work than their slightly older counterparts, and probably a little less mature, yet the figures appear to show that work very safely until they are 16 and 17 years old, and then they begin to have serious accidents on the job? The BLS apparently doesn’t consider this remarkable — and doesn’t comment on it — but this discrepancy cries out for attention. What’s going on?

This writer suspects that the problem has to do with the fact that 14 and 15 year-old workers are much more restricted in the jobs and hours they are legally allowed to be employed compared to 16 and 17-year-olds. Sixteen and seventeen year-old employees are legally allowed under federal law (the Fair Labor Standards Act) to work at all occupations, except seventeen which are designated by the Labor Department as unusually hazardous — for example, working with explosives, or radioactive materials, or operating forklifts or guillotine shears, etc. Also, 16 and 17 year-olds can work the same hours as any adult worker, with no special restrictions.

On the other hand, 14 and 15-year-old workers may be employed in retail, food service, gasoline service and related jobs, but are banned from work in most industries and from many professions. Also, these workers cannot work during school hours, no more than 18 hours per week when school is in session, no more than 40 when school is out of session, no more than three hours per day when school is in session, no more than 8 when school is out of session, and only between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. when school is in session (7 a.m. to 9 p.m. when it is out of session).


You get the picture. Any reported lost-time injury involves paper work and a paper trail by medical providers and perhaps workers compensation, so a violation of federal work standards is more likely to be uncovered for a 14 or 15 year-old worker. For example, often many of us have seen young high school or junior-high students working after 7 p.m. during the school week, a clear violation of federal work standards. If an accident occurs to one of these employees, even at 4 p.m. in the afternoon, it is more likely that he/she will be questioned about (illegal) working hours, or maybe a friend or relative will call up the area U.S. Labor Department office and file a complaint. So the less risky course for the employer may be not to report the injury at all and take their chances. For 16 and 17-year-old workers there is less risk to the employer, so injuries would more likely be reported – and this is what the BLS data seems to indicate.

Based on the data we have for the 16 and 17-year-olds, what are the most dangerous jobs in terms of lost-time injuries on the job? Almost half of all lost-time injuries on the job happen in eating and drinking places (e.g., back and shoulder strains, slips and falls, burns), and another 25 percent in food stores (e.g., cuts on slicing machines, strains and sprains, slips and falls). Among service jobs, it is notable that the greatest percentage of reported work injuries is in health services, where almost one-tenth of all injuries to 16 and 17-year-olds are reported.

When all is said and done, how do we as union people view jobs for teenagers — as a chance to earn money and get job experience by young people, often our kids and relatives, or as low-wage exploitation by employers trying to make a few more dollars in profits? The answer, I think, depends on the job: If the job has a future, if it prepares our youngsters for a trade or other gainful employment, then it is, all things considered, probably a good job, and the everyday risks of accidents are worth taking. If the jobs are low-paying and have no future, like so many retail store and food industry jobs, then the hiring of teenagers (think of McDonalds!) is a way to avoid the better pay which adults with families need, and to avoid the "dangers" of union organizing to improve wages and working conditions because the workforce is always temporary. Let the retail stores pay union wages to all their employees, as (unionized) supermarkets do now, and these now dead-end jobs will have a future for teenagers and adults.

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