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Report on Teenagers' Jobs Outlines Adverse Effects

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Far from instilling positive values in young people, the jobs American teenagers hold outside school can have an "adverse effect on their lives,'' according to a report by a national advocacy group.

The report was released this month by the National Safe Work Institute, a Chicago-based group that promotes job safety. It examines the kinds of jobs held by the nation's 5.5 million working teenagers, the amount of time they spend on the job, and the effects of those working experiences on students' school performance and physical and mental health.

In particular, the report exhorts educators and policymakers to take more active role than they have until now in supervising and restricting the work experiences of teenagers.

"Millions of American children work each day, working too many hours, too late at night, often in unsafe workplaces,'' it says. "We are all to blame for this situation and all must play a constructive, 'win-win' role in responding.''

Officials of the U.S. Labor Department and the fast-food industry disputed the accuracy of some of the report's findings and said that, in some cases, it exaggerates the negative aspects of work conditions for teenagers.

Long Hours, Unsafe Jobs

According to the report, of the 5.5 million teenagers who work, more than 676,000 work in an underground economy, where they are paid in cash and their jobs are unregulated by government authorities. Such jobs include selling candy on street corners, shining shoes, and working on farms.

The number of such jobs was disputed by Robert Cuccia, a spokesman for the Labor Department, who said it was based in part on estimates by the institute.

A majority of the rest of working teenagers, most of whom are white, are employed by the fast-food industry, the report says.

The average 15-year-old worker works 17 hours a week in addition to a 32-hour school week, according to federal data cited in the report. And 16- and 17-year-olds work 21 hours a week on average.

That kind of work schedule offers students little time for studying, the report says. And students working late at night may be coming to school too tired to learn, it says.

In figures also disputed by the Labor Department, the report estimates that 139 job-related deaths and 71,660 injuries occurred among working children and teenagers in 1990.

Federal labor laws prohibit 14- and 15-year-olds from working in extremely hazardous professions, such as logging. But, according to the report, an estimated 20,000 of the injuries to teenage workers in 1990 took place in less hazardous "eating and drinking places.'' Such accidents included falls on slippery floors, burns from hot grills, and, in at least one case, electrocution.

The authors also take issue with the quality of teenagers' work experiences. Unlike previous generations, who worked in small "mom and pop'' operations under close adult supervision, the authors say, teenagers today are working in unchallenging, routinized jobs in which they are supervised by other teenagers.

Blame and Recommendations

The authors blame a variety of sources for the working conditions they describe: ineffective or uninterested state and federal policymakers and enforcement agencies, business owners, unwitting parents, and educators who ignore the harmful effects of after-school work.

Among the steps the report recommends to improve work environments for teenagers:

  • Requiring employers to obtain work permits, preferably through schools, in order to employ teenagers.
  • State-imposed restrictions on the number of hours teenagers work and the kinds of jobs they may hold.
  • Tougher enforcement of federal and state child-labor laws.
  • Requiring working students to take classes on their legal rights; and
  • Asking employers to pledge not to hire school dropouts.

Michael Evans, a spokesman for the Burger King Corporation, criticized the report.

"We feel work is part of a young person's development in balance with education and everything else in their lives,'' Mr. Evans said. He noted that his corporation stopped hiring 14- and 15-year-olds in 1990.

Mr. Cuccia of the Labor Department said the report's inaccuracies "jeopardized its credibility.'' For example, he said, the report states that the equivalent of only 93 federal inspectors check for child-labor violations, when in fact 840 are charged with that duty.

Thomas Geoghegan, the director of the institute, said the report's figure was based on the department's own estimates of the amount of time its inspectors spend on child-labor issues.

Information on the report is available from the National Safe Workplace Institute, 122 South Michigan Ave., Suite 1450, Chicago, Ill. 60603.

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