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.
- Do your homework. Before your teen says "yes" to a job, find out as much as you can about the potential employer and the workplace. "Ideally teens will work with friends so they can ask about the environment ahead of time," says Darlene Adkins Kerr, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, an organization that works to strengthen child labor laws and encourage their enforcement. "In addition, you should casually drop by once in a while. If it's a restaurant, stop in for dinner or lunch; if it's a supermarket, shop there occasionally. Take note of how the manager treats the employees and whether safety precautions are being followed."
- Know the laws. Explain child labor regulations to your teen so she'll know if she's asked to do anything inappropriate (like serving alcohol in a restaurant or working beyond allowed hours). Go to youthrules.dol.gov/states.htm for the specifics in your state.
- Establish your own ground rules. "Don't just rely on the laws," advises Carol W. Runyan, PhD, director of the Injury Prevention Research Center at UNC at Chapel Hill. "You may need to be stricter." Even if it's legal for your teen to work until 7 p.m. on a school night, for instance, you may want him home by 6 p.m. so he's not driving after dark.
- Ask leading questions. Your teen may not tell you how things are going — you'll have to pull it out of her. "How was work today?" is likely to yield an unenlightening, "Fine." Instead, inquire, "Does the manager ever ask you to work after you clock out?" Or, "How closely does your supervisor watch to make sure you do things the right way?" Or, "Do you feel comfortable asking your boss questions if you don't understand something?" One of the most important things a parent can ask is, "Have your responsibilities changed since you started the job?" You need to know whether a kid who was hired to do something innocuous may have graduated to something riskier. "We've heard tragic stories from parents who say, 'When my teen got this job, she was hired to bus tables. I didn't know they'd put her in the back using a slicing machine,'" says Kerr.
More Stay-Safe Strategies
- Watch for signs of sexual harassment. Does your teen seem worried or exhausted? Does she get agitated or secretive when you ask about work? In a recent study of 393 teen boys and girls conducted by the University of Southern Maine in Portland, 35 percent (two-thirds of whom were female) said they had been sexually harassed on the job. Tell your teen about this study and ask, "Has anybody at work asked you out repeatedly after you'd already said no? Has anyone ever made crude comments about your appearance or touched you in a way that made you feel uncomfortable?"
- Practice some good responses together. To a crude remark, she could say, "That's gross. Don't say things like that to me." If things don't improve quickly, she may need your help writing a complaint to the manager (or the next person up the ladder, if the harasser is the manager, as happens in 19 percent of cases). If your teen feels seriously threatened, it might be best for her to quit the job and file a complaint, either alone or with other employees, with the local chapter of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or even with the police. You and your teen can log on to the EEOC's Web site to read about sexual harassment laws and get the answers to common questions teens have at youth.eeoc.gov/harass.html.
- Empower your teen to speak up. Unlike adults, who prefer to feel autonomous by learning tasks for themselves, teens are happiest when their responsibilities are clearly spelled out. "Teens often hesitate to ask questions of their bosses because they feel like they should already know the answers or simply because they're not used to talking to adults," says Runyan. "As a parent, you can help by pretending to be your teen's boss and letting him practice the best ways to get information." For instance, if your teen isn't sure he's doing something correctly, he could say, "Mr. Smith, I want to get this right. Is this the way I'm supposed to do it?"
- Help your teen decide when to act. There will be times when your teen has to stand up for himself. But it's hard. "Most teens aren't used to challenging adults, and they often feel that if they don't do what the manager asks them to do, they'll get fired," says Runyan. Help your child by role-playing possible responses to a problem he's encountering. Say your teen is being pressured to work at a time that's not legal for his age. He should say, "Mrs. Smith, I'm 15 so I'm not allowed to work past 7 p.m. on a school night. But once I turn 16, I'd be glad to talk about working longer." In cases where the manager is breaking the law, your teen's best course of action may be to quit and find another job, then report the manager or the organization to your state's Department of Labor. Go to usa.gov and click on the State Government link.
What moms say their kids have gained on the job:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.