Campaign To Alert Youths to Workplace Rights

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With millions of teenagers poised to start summer jobs, the U.S. Department of Labor is set to launch a campaign next week to educate young people--and their employers--about potential hazards in the workplace.

Whether slinging burgers, bagging groceries, or ringing up customers at the local mall, more than 3 million teenagers under 18 are expected to enter the workforce between June and September. It's more common now than ever before for young people to have a part-time job at some point during their adolescent years, child-labor experts say.

In its "Work Safe This Summer" guide, which Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman is expected to unveil May 28, the Labor Department highlights young people's rights under existing federal child-labor laws and flags occupations that are off limits to minors.

Although the majority of young workers have hazard-free job experiences, the department estimates that about 70 teenagers are killed on the job each year--about one every five days. Each year, about 64,000 teenagers are injured seriously enough at work to require emergency room treatment.

Labor Department officials hope to reduce the number of on-the-job casualties by alerting the new crop of workers, as well as their teachers and parents, to young people's workplace rights.

Their campaign's centerpiece is a "Teen Workers' Bill of Rights," a primer for young people entering the job market that spells out the wages they are entitled to and the maximum hours people under 18 can be compelled to work.

One-fourth of the youths who lose their lives on the job are killed in motor-vehicle accidents. Labor Department officials cited press reports on the death of a 14-year-old in South Carolina, who was killed after a forklift he was driving turned over and crushed him.

The remainder of teenagers who die at work perish in machine-related mishaps, are electrocuted, murdered, or struck by a falling object.

Of the more than 200,000 injuries adolescent employees sustain at work, the most common are bruises, cuts, burns, and sprains.

Naturally, most of these injuries occur where teenagers are most commonly employed: in the retail industry--which includes fast-food outlets and food stores--and in the health, education, entertainment, and recreation fields.

Teenage workers have a higher risk of on-the-job injury than adults do, studies have shown.

"Young people come into the workplace without knowledge, and employers often don't take the extra time to train them," said Jeffrey Newman, the president of the National Child Labor Committee, a youth-advocacy group based in New York City.

Workplace Rights

The federal government recently stepped up its enforcement of child-labor-law violations. From October 1995 to September 1996, the Labor Department found more than 7,000 young people working in violation of federal labor laws.

Federal law allows people age 18 or older to perform hazardous work, from manufacturing explosives to operating power tools to driving a car. But such tasks are strictly forbidden to minors.

While 18-year-olds may toil for unlimited hours, 16- and 17-year-olds may work long hours only in nonhazardous positions. Under the law, 14- and 15-year-old workers are barred from working on any dangerous assignment and are prohibited from working more than 18 hours a week when school is in session.

Teenagers younger than 14 are not allowed to work at all, except in agricultural jobs.

Teenage workers must be paid at least the minimum wage of $4.75 an hour and, with a few exceptions, given overtime pay.

Despite clear wage, hour, and safety restrictions, many employers--including popular fast-food chains such as Pizza Hut--have failed to comply with the laws, one Labor Department official said.

But Jay Allison, a spokesman for the Dallas-based Pizza Hut Inc., said last week that the company is contesting the government's charges. "The allegations are unjustified," he said.

Overall, Mr. Allison and other businesses have applauded the federal government for its safety campaign. "We've long said that education is one of the best approaches the federal government can take ... as opposed to coming into the workplace and creating a hostile environment," said Frank Colemen, a spokesman for the Washington-based U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

More Training

Spokesmen for child-labor and education groups said they hope the department's guidelines, which are now posted on the Internet at the "teen safety" site at, will draw more public attention to the need to protect young workers.

Even if teenagers are aware of the possible hazards, young people eager to earn cash and work experience often have little incentive to object to any duty they're asked to perform, youth advocates say.

Paul F. Cole, a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that schools can help get the message out to students to choose their summer jobs wisely. "The challenge is to have schools work with employers to make sure that work is a positive learning experience and not an opportunity to exploit teenagers."

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