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Labor Daze: Part-Time Summer Jobs

The right summer or part-time job can build kids' skills, make good use of their spare time, and fill their pockets. But before your teen dives into the work force, here's what you both need to know to avoid any occupational hazards.

By Laura Flynn McCarthy

Labor Daze

When Chelsea Bourque, 17, took a summer job scooping frozen yogurt, her mother, Kim Guidry, was confident her daughter would gain good life experience. And Chelsea was eager to make her own money and be more independent. Kim felt doubly reassured because she'd known the store owner in New Iberia, Louisiana, for years. Chelsea did such a good job that when summer ended she was asked to stay on and even open and close the shop sometimes. That was when Kim started feeling uneasy. "She'd be there alone with a drawer full of cash for the first or last 20 minutes of her shift," says Kim. "If she was opening, I'd drop her off, tell her to lock the door the minute she got into the building, and I'd wait in the car until the owner arrived. If she was closing, I'd arrive 20 minutes early. You can't be too careful."

Kim's concerns were natural. Even though the 6 million American teens who hold jobs reap multiple benefits -- learning to manage money, developing time-management skills, gaining a sense of responsibility, and becoming efficient at problem solving with other people -- they face some potential downsides as well. About 230,000 teen workers are injured yearly, in incidents ranging from burns and cuts in restaurant kitchens to accidents with power tools and falls from roofs in construction and landscaping jobs. Deaths, fortunately, are rare, but they do happen -- between 60 and 70 each year, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (Close to half of those are in agricultural jobs.) And there are other hazards that don't threaten life but can still inflict emotional damage, including sexual harassment and encounters with hostile coworkers, managers, or customers.

It's no wonder kids are experiencing so many of the ups and downs of work life -- they're racking up a lot of hours. A new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill finds that American teens average about 16 hours a week on the job; more than 80 percent of them work after 7 p.m. on school nights and over half of them are still toiling away after 9 p.m. Much of the trouble kids encounter happens in those evening hours.

But for most teens -- and their parents -- the payoffs of working far outweigh the risks. Help your teens get the most out of employment with these stay-safe strategies.

Stay-Safe Strategies

More Stay-Safe Strategies

Benefits Department

What moms say their kids have gained on the job:

  1. Respect and compassion: "Both of my teens work in restaurants, and now when we go out to dinner they always insist we leave a good tip because they understand how hard some people have to work to live," says Annmarie Ferguson of Pleasant Valley, New York, mom of Hannah, 16, and Matthew, 18.
  2. Confidence: "My daughter wasn't into sports and didn't do many extracurricular activities at school, but working in a restaurant and being promoted twice has given her an idea of what she is good at," says Heidi Overson of Coon Valley, Wisconsin, mom of Mari, 17.
  3. People skills: "Alex has had three managers and has dealt with lots of customers in the supermarket where he works. He has learned that if a customer is rude or grouchy, he should never respond in kind, just smile and be willing to carry out their groceries," says Lauren Caldwell of Clifton Park, New York, mom of Alex, 18.
  4. Responsibility: "From the time he started working at 15, I've never had to wake up Tyler for work. He knows his schedule, and he's got his priorities. He's become very mature about balancing his job and his social life. He knows what it feels like when a place is understaffed because someone called in sick on Monday," says Courtney Edwards of Kittery, Maine, mom of Tyler, 18.
  5. Money smarts: "When my daughter was 15 and started wanting a lot of extras, I told her she'd have to earn the money to buy those things herself. When she realized how hard she had to work she quickly decided she could skip hair highlights and designer sunglasses. And she's become a good saver too," says Jeanine Trikilis of Canyon Country, California, mom to Olivia, 18.

The Right Job for Any Age

You can't assume child labor laws are always enforced. The parent is the ultimate authority. Prepare yourself with a look at what the U.S. Department of Labor says tweens and teens can do and when.

13 and under

When they can work: At the discretion of parents, for neighbors and friends' parents they know well and trust.
Good options: Babysitting, delivering newspapers, petsitting, and collecting mail for vacationing neighbors, shoveling snow or doing yard work (but no power equipment), performing and assisting in businesses owned by their parents.

14- and 15-year-olds

When they can work: Cannot coincide with school hours, and must be between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. (hours are extended to 9 p.m. in the summer); up to 3 hours on a school day; up to 18 hours in a school week; up to 8 hours on a non-school day; up to 40 hours during a non-school week.
Good options: Jobs that don't require your teen to make major decisions, like clerking in retail stores, assisting in a library, or filing papers in an office.

16- and 17-year-olds

When they can work: Any time of day, for any number of hours.
Good options: All positions except those declared hazardous by the Department of Labor (working with explosives, driving, mining, logging, roofing, excavating, demolition, anything that uses power-driven machines). Ideal jobs are those related to a teen's possible career choice.

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the May 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.