How Young Workers Are Being Exploited in the COVID-19 Economy

Yves here. This post gives some examples of employer abuses of teenaged employees. It does point out that a big driver of the misconduct is their lower wage rates. But the post isn’t as clear on why more are being exploited now. The Covid “recovery” has been uneven, plus some have lost jobs or had to cut back hours due to long Covid or the need to care for sick relatives. That may be what is putting even more pressure on the ones who can bring in money.

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). 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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  1. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Yves.

    As you may expect, it’s the same in Blighty.

    With regard to the question asked by you in the introduction, I noticed that in a beer garden last summer and asked the manager. He said older and foreign staff had moved on, often retiring or getting better pay with other establishments, or out, returning to the EU27. It’s the same in other forms of catering.

    However, in some other, but not many, service sectors, older and more experienced / qualified staff are returning as pay and conditions are getting better, e.g. utility servicing.

    Older readers in the UK may recall the Youth Training Scheme of the 1980s and 1990s and its sometimes fatal consequences, e.g. sending a 16 year old boy to clean chemical tanks without training and protection and supervision and to his death on his first day on such a programme, or the likes of TV personality Noel Edmonds getting trainees to maintain his country garden for free. That exploitation continues.

  2. Sound of the Suburbs

    Understanding the capitalist system.

    What does the father of modern economics also say?
    “But the rate of profit does not, like rent and wages, rise with the prosperity and fall with the declension of the society. On the contrary, it is naturally low in rich and high in poor countries, and it is always highest in the countries which are going fastest to ruin.” Adam Smith, classical economist

    Exactly the opposite of today’s thinking, what does he mean?
    When rates of profit are high, capitalism is cannibalising itself by:
    1) Not engaging in long term investment for the future
    2) Paying insufficient wages to maintain demand for its products and services
    Today’s problems with growth and demand.
    Amazon didn’t suck its profits out as dividends and look how big it’s grown (not so good on the wages).

    Where does the idea of maximising profit actually come from?

    The benefits of the system can be passed upwards in dividends or downwards in wages.
    Both actually detract from the money available for re-investment as Jeff Bezos knows only too well.
    He didn’t pay dividends, and paid really low wages, to maximise the amount that he could re-invest in Amazon and look how big it’s grown.
    The shareholders gains are made through the value of the shares.
    Jeff Bezos hopes other people are paying high enough wages to buy lots of stuff from Amazon; his own workers don’t have much purchasing power.

    There are three different directions in which the benefits of the system can flow.
    Milton Freidman said companies should look after share holders.
    This means pumping as much as possible out to them to the detriment of the companies themselves and their employees.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      This is what it can look like when you are not pumping out most of the money to other people outside the company.

      My friend runs a small firm, and I can see the acceptable face capitalism can present.
      He wants a well oiled machine that runs well.
      There may be big cogs and small cogs, but this machine needs all those cogs turning together.
      He doesn’t want good people to leave, as he knows getting a good replacement is easier said than done. He will pay a good rate for good people to keep them.
      He tries to keep them happy and organises occasional social events for the staff so they feel valued. The last thing he wants is for his staff to think he is just using them, or that he is taking advantage of them.
      This is his money machine and he wants it to run in the best way it possibly can.
      Everyone does well out of this arrangement and he makes lots of money.

      All the money the company generates is shared by people within the firm.
      My friend does take a big cut, but there is still plenty left for everyone else.

    2. Anthony G Stegman

      Capitalism is just another form of slavery. Capitalism always moves towards the slave state with respect to workers in a capitalist system. By slave state I mean constantly seeking lower cost labor with the ideal end point being zero cost labor.

      1. Sound of the Suburbs

        There was a generation that remembered how bad the 1930s were, and sought to improve things.
        A new generation came along that remembered how bad the 1970s were, and started to move in the opposite direction.

  3. polar donkey

    A friend of mine who teaches at a high school in northern Mississippi has a problem. Since the country is still having the covid pandemic, there is no penalty for students missing school. Businesses know that, especially places like Wal-mart. Wal-mart will offer and schedule hours to teenagers during the school day. The company doesn’t care if students are skipping school to work these hours. Needless to say, working when kids are supposed to be in class isn’t good for their studies and greatly increases the chances the students drop out.

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