Work And What It's Worth

Two or three days a week during the school year, 17-year-old Meta Smith headed directly from class to Mr. G's supermarket in Chicago. From 3 to 8 p.m. she bagged groceries, rang up sales and served cold cuts in the store's deli. Then she headed home for a night of homework before jumping into bed--and waking up at 6 the next morning to begin the routine anew. Her motivation: m-o-n-e-y. Most weeks, Meta earned about $90, which she used to buy make-up, clothes, jewelry and lunches. Says she: "So far it's the best job I've had."

Forget malt shops and roller rinks. The hot after-school hangout these days is the American workplace. Between 1981 and 1989, the percentage of 16- and 17-year-olds working grew from 35.5 percent to 37.6--a slight increase, but one that may surprise many newly prosperous parents who feared that their spoiled kids might never clean their rooms, let alone hold down a job. On the contrary. Now experts worry that impressionable youngsters are spending too much time in front of the short-order grill and not enough time with their schoolbooks. Another aspect of the kid work boom: child-labor violations are rising at an alarming rate.

The increase in the percentage of working teens has been fueled, in part, by the expanding service-sector economy. The number of lowwage, part-time jobs grew in the 1980s, making teens a valuable commodity in the labor market. The upshot is that about 7.7 million, or about one third, of 14- to 19-year-olds worked in 1988--and they have inherited the consumerist mentality of the 1980s. In wealthy areas, teens can earn upwards of $200 a week. It's true that some teens save their earnings to pay for college, but many others do not. Laurence Steinberg, coauthor of the book "When Teenagers Work," believes youngsters are motivated more by luxurious tastes than by economic need. Working teens "are supporting their lifestyles," he says. "If you want to buy Reeboks with a pump, you have to have $125 to spend on them."

Reeboks aren't the only items teens are buying. All told, 13- to 19-year-olds spent $56 billion on themselves last year. According to one poll, clothes and food topped the list of buys. In addition, the survey showed, about 60 percent of all teens now own a calculator, up from 30 percent in 1979; about 28 percent have a phone, and 47 percent own a TV.

But beyond a boost to their spending power, how much does working really add to the quality of teenagers' lives? "If it's handled properly it can be a great experience for teens," says Michael Rourke of A&P, which also owns Waldbaum stores. Rourke estimates that 75 percent of the markets' part-timers are under 20. Jobs such as bagging groceries or Sipping burgers can teach kids the discipline and skills they need for a productive future. Holding a part-time job can also provide a sneak preview of the kinds of problems adults confront every day--negotiating salaries, arranging work schedules and dealing with bosses.

Nineteen-year-old Ethel Richards was awakened to the realities of the workplace on her first day on the job at Alexander's department store in Brooklyn, N.Y., last year. When she attended a lecture on employee theft, "they showed us a film of a woman who was led out of the store in handcuffs," she recalls. "They scared you so much that you wouldn't even think of stealing." An 18-year-old who works for a retail clothing chain was equally shocked when he was given a written reprimand for discussing his salary with his co-workers. "It was a warning to say that if I did this again I would be fired," he says.

Critics of the work-environment issue their own warnings. While others may see hamburger-flipping as a discipline, they see it as meaning less, dead-end work. Even the authors of "The 100 Best Companies to Work For in America" reflect this view in a passage about McDonald's: "The profit . . . squeezed out of the business . . . depends crucially on low wages . . . and an assembly-line operation that leaves the employee with little or no free time to think."

Or to study, for that matter. Students often sacrifice their studies for monotonous, dead end jobs--in effect, trading the long-term economic benefits of education for a smaller, short-term payoff. Government and educators are finally starting to notice. Earlier this year Donna Lynch, a teacher from Clifton Park, N.Y., appeared before the New York State Legislature to speak in support of a bill that would limit teenagers work hours. In her testimony, Lynch related the story of Eric, an A student whose grades slipped after he began working in a store. "I noticed he was having difficulty staying awake, difficulty in responding to questions, and his assignments were either not up to past performance or handed in late," she told the legislators.

Even kids who want to work less and do their homework can be cowed into working too much. Seventeen-year-old Latysha Place, for example, says she was pushed by her superiors to pull eight-hour shifts on successive school nights at her job in a supermarket in Flushing, N.Y. Fearing reprisal, Latysha acquiesced: "I would come in after school at 2:30 and work until 11. By the time I got home, I really didn't do my homework. I did what I had to do to get by."

Such exhaustive schedules can cause problems outside the classroom, too. In his research, Steinberg found that teens who work more than 15 to 20 hours per week tend to spend less time with their parents than their nonworking classmates. They spend more time daydreaming in class, have more behavior problems and are more likely to drink and smoke cigarettes and marijuana.

Federal labor law is designed to help ensure the welfare of working teens, but traditionally, it has had little teeth. Currently the law prohibits most paid work for kids younger than 14 and says children under 16 can work only three hours a day during the week and no more than 18 hours a week during school. Even so, in states like New York, it's legally possible for 17-year-olds to spend 48 hours a week at work--more than many adults do in full-time jobs. Says Dr. Philip Landrigan, a physician who studies the hazards of child labor: "Most Americans believe . . . child labor is a problem experienced only in Third World countries. However, the harsh reality is that . . . child-labor problems not only exist, but they are getting worse."

This spring, after receiving 22,500 reports of child-labor-law violations in 1989--many of them involving teens--the Department of Labor began a nationwide crackdown. Accused employers ranged from mom-and-pop operations to some of the nation's largest corporations. Among the alleged offenders was Burger King, which was accused of repeatedly asking teens to work more than the maximum number of hours allowed by law. New York state's enforcement activity has also focused on sweatshops in New York City's garment district and Chinatown, where many working teens are illegal aliens. At one such raid, held during a school day, inspectors found children as young as 14 working in buildings with blocked fire exits, exposed wiring and hazardous machinery.

In some instances, the workplace does more than keep kids away from School; it becomes the setting for tragedy. In April, Miami teen Miriam Franco, then 15, suffered severe hand injuries while operating a juice compactor at Tropical Supermarket, a Miami grocery. The girl spent three weeks in the hospital where she underwent multiple skin grafts. Attorney William Sullivan, a specialist in child-labor law who is preparing a lawsuit against Tropical on the girl's behalf, says such incidents are not uncommon among businesses hiring teens. "You probably could find hazardous conditions in 30 to 40 percent of them," he says. (Tropical chooses not to comment until a lawsuit is filed.)

To document just how extensive the problem is, is, Sinai's Landrigan and his partner Dr. Pollack are compiling a database of workplace injuries to children. In 1987-88, the General Accounting Office reported 128,000 injuries to youths on the job in 33 states. Many of those occurred in such places as farms, fast-food restaurants and grocery stores--sites where kids operate or work around equipment.

For both child advocates and employers, the question of the 1990s will be how best to encourage productive work by teens while protecting them from abuse. Along with tougher state laws such as the one under consideration in New York, congressmen are pushing legislation that would slap the worst violators with fines of $100,000 and jail sentences of at least six months.

In the end, the answer to improving the lot of teenage workers may lie not in legislation but in providing them with an incentive to value school as much as work. In Homestead, Fla., where hundreds of teens work as migrant laborers, the Coalition of Florida Farm Work Organizations succeeded in luring youngsters back to the classroom by offering them a $2.35-an-hour stipend to study instead of work. Before funding was cut for the program, it produced a fourfold reduction in the school-dropout rate. In New York, a nonprofit organization called New Youth Connections encourages minority students to build career skills by writing and producing their own newspaper. Latysha Place, for one, quit her supermarket job and later took an unpaid internship at the paper. The hope is that when she graduates, she'll have something more valuable than a new wardrobe and jewelry--the tools necessary to build a career.

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