How young workers are being exploited in the COVID-19 economy

As employers increasingly look to prey on adolescents, the teens will need more protection rather than less.

SOURCEIndependent Media Institute

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

The newcomer to Bob Garrou’s high school wrestling program had won his first match, and was growing in confidence, when he abruptly quit the team.

It sickened Garrou to learn why. A local store summarily fired the teen when he balked at working more than the 16 hours he already put in each week, leading the dejected youth to conclude he had to give up sports so he’d be available to cater to his next employer’s every whim.

Rather than provide the decent wages and health care needed to hire adults, more and more employers prefer to line their pockets on the backs of vulnerable teenagers like the young man who left Garrou’s team.

The abuse skyrocketed as employers cut corners in the COVID-19 economy. A Walgreens in South Carolina flouted child labor laws by hiring a 12-year-old. Alabama chicken plants exploited migrant teens to keep production going. A 16-year-old boy tripped and fell 11 stories to his death after a contractor illegally put him to work on the roof of a Tennessee hotel.

Other callous employers assigned teens prohibited work like operating potentially lethal machinery, climbing ladders and working as deckhands, while chains like Wendy’s and Chipotle drove youths to work ever longer hours, often past legal limits. And if all of that isn’t bad enough, some Republicans want to make it even easier for bosses to take advantage of young workers.

Garrou said he’s grateful that Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on February 4 vetoed a bill, passed by the GOP-controlled legislature, that would have let some employers dramatically extend working hours for 14- and 15-year-olds across the state.

Wisconsin law mandates quitting times of 7 p.m. during the school year and 9 p.m. during the summer for workers in that age group. But the Republicans’ bill—opposed by the Child Labor Coalition—would have allowed smaller businesses to work them until 11 p.m. as long as schools were closed the following day.

“They’re trying to hold these kids hostage because they don’t want to pay adults a real wage,” noted Garrou, who in addition to coaching wrestling and other youth sports is the president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 248 and safety coordinator at a Packaging Corp. of America facility in Wisconsin.

As COVID-19 raged, millions of adults quit their jobs, fed up with greedy employers who not only failed to pay decent wages but also refused to provide the health care and sick leave they needed to survive the pandemic. Struggling to remain open, yet unwilling to meet adult workers’ needs, employers set their sights on teenagers.

One restaurant chain CEO who’s hired dozens of teens put it this way: “We need bodies.”

“I think it’s a shame,” Garrou said. “Kids need to focus on being young because they’ll work the rest of their lives.”

Garrou worked on a strawberry farm when he was a teenager and credits the job with helping him develop a strong work ethic.

But he didn’t work during the school year, so the job never interfered with the sports and other character-building activities that benefited him just as much.

It isn’t just the number of hours employers demand of teens that bothers Garrou today. Just as maddening is how inflexible they are with youths trying to juggle multiple responsibilities, with some managers demanding that young workers arrive “by 3:30” and “stay until close” no matter what else goes on in their lives.

Because of the way the store treated the young wrestler, Garrou said, he’ll never spend a dollar there again.

“They wouldn’t even talk to him,” Garrou said. “They said he chose wrestling over work and didn’t want to have anything to do with him anymore.”

Garrou, calling 16 hours a week a demanding workload for a high school student, tried to reason with one of the managers. He offered to let the teen leave practice early if the manager would compromise as well.

“Can’t we work together?” he asked.

“She said no. She said, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be a boss these days.’”

A desire to enable this kind of employer, at the expense of young workers, drove a recent upending of Indiana’s child labor law.

Among other changes, the Republican-controlled legislature eliminated special rest breaks for teenage workers and abolished the work permits that schools had to issue in order for minors to hold jobs. That system enabled educators to ensure students had good attendance and academic records before starting jobs while also providing schools a ready means of monitoring young workers.

Now, employers merely have to go onto a state database and register the teens they hire, a process the state boasts is much faster and more convenient for bosses.

State officials claimed work permits are no longer required to protect children’s academic progress because the problem has been solved.

“I think that’s baloney,” said Dorine Godinez, president of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) Chapter 31-1, noting the change addresses “corporate wants” while putting teens’ futures at risk. “They need to focus on their education so they can get family-sustaining jobs.”

Lawmakers not only sold out teen workers but also tried to put a positive spin on the betrayal, even giving the Bureau of Child Labor a new deceptively feel-good name.

It’s now called the Bureau of Youth Employment. “Sounds a little better,” declared Republican Rep. Randy Lyness.

“It seems like Republicans always have misnomers for what they’re doing,” observed Godinez, who worked as a safety coordinator at what’s now Cleveland-Cliffs’ East Chicago, Indiana, complex, recalling the GOP’s countless attacks on workers’ rights.

As employers increasingly look to prey on adolescents, the teens will need more protection rather than less.

Garrou worries about youths walking into dark parking lots at night and falling asleep at the wheel driving home. He knows teens’ rash judgment, along with their eagerness to please, can kill them.

“A 14-year-old will rush in,” Garrou said. “A 20-year-old will ask why.”


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