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Program Aims to Protect Rights of Working Youths

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 15, Juan Garcia worked eight hours a day, six days a week, repairing beat-up cars in an auto body shop near his South-Central home to earn food money for his family.

For two months, he sanded off old paint and prepared cars for coating with only a paper mask on his face to protect his nose and mouth from the fumes. He earned $100 a week, not knowing why he suffered from headaches, or that he may have been overworked and underpaid.

“I thought I was getting so much money a week,” recalled Garcia, now 18. “I used to be so ignorant about such things.”

Fortunately, Garcia said he experienced no long-term effects from the fumes. But the incident led him into a program aimed at helping teenagers learn they have labor rights, just as adults do.

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“We found that many students were being exploited” on the job, said Juanita Tate, executive director of Concerned Citizens of South Central, a nonprofit organization that advocates social, economic and environmental justice in South-Central L.A. “Many [of the teenagers] are undocumented and don’t know they have rights,” she said.

Two years ago, Tate noticed that teenagers were coming to the group’s job center with stories about how some bosses insisted they work long hours on school nights, or forced them to continue working even after suffering an injury on the job. In areas where work was scarce and a few extra dollars could help the family, Tate said, the youths were afraid to speak up against bosses.

Few knew they had rights, such as limited work on school nights, training about health and safety, protective clothing and equipment, and medical compensation in case of injury on the job.

So, along with officials from Jefferson High School, Tate contacted UCLA for help creating a peer education program at the school. In the Jefferson Safety and Health Education program, students teach other students and the community how to reduce environmental hazards and health risks on the job through presentations, said Linda Delp, director of the project based at UCLA.

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In South-Central, teenagers are more likely to seek out jobs close to home, such as in the garment district, food warehouses or small restaurants, because they are accessible by bus or by walking, Delp said. But some jobs near downtown Los Angeles also include dangerous machinery, she said. Under the state child labor laws, teenagers 18 and younger are prohibited from operating heavy machines.

According to UCLA researchers, youths ages 14 to 18 often are unaware that they are protected by such agencies as Cal/OSHA, the State Labor Commission and the Fair Employment and Housing Program. Researchers discovered that 40% of 300 Jefferson students surveyed were never asked to sign work permits at their jobs. The permits are required under state law for students ages 14 to 18.

“In general, I don’t think most kids know they have rights on the job,” said Cecile Grakal, a Jefferson High career advisor. “So many kids here are immigrants that they are not sure what the labor standards are in this country.”

She said the most common violation of child labor laws in the area is working more hours than allowed.

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“There’s very little employment in the neighborhood and the kids are very anxious to keep [their jobs]. Some of our students work in factories and often times are not treated well. They feel they are not allowed to complain.”

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Indeed, as the unemployment rate sinks to its lowest point in years, the U.S. Labor Department reports that 30% more teenagers will be employed this summer than last. But the tight labor market and demand for workers will not trickle down to youths in inner cities, said Assistant Secretary of Labor Bernard E. Anderson. And that produces a generation of adults who never become aware of their rights.

“They among all youths are not going to get information about the job market,” he said.

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According to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor, about 35%, or 2.6 million, of all 16- and 17-year-olds are employed each year. This year, the number may nearly double to 4.5 million, Anderson said.

“The data are not reported for under 16, but we know that younger kids work by virtue of the number of injures we see,” said Dawn Castillo, an epidemiologist for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The Jefferson program is aimed at educating ninth-grade students, because that is the age when most youths get their first jobs.

During the role-playing sessions, teenagers watch scenarios given by UCLA and Jefferson students who portray situations in which bosses try to sexually harass the youths, overwork them, or don’t offer protective work gear.

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The sessions encourage youths to be assertive with their employers. If they don’t like the scene that unfolds, the ninth-graders intervene and act out how they would handle the situation.

Although the program suggests that unethical business practices are more likely in the inner cities, where there are more informal work sectors, members of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce insist that efforts are constantly being made to prevent workplace exploitation.

“In general, where you have very large companies, they will have large human resource departments where people stay on top of the laws,” said Ezunial Burts, president of the chamber. Problems are more likely to occur at smaller companies, he said.

Coordinators of the project hope that the information youths receive will be passed on to their parents, many of whom work in the same kinds of jobs. The project, first implemented in Massachusetts and Northern California, has worked so well at Jefferson High that it has been approved to begin at nearby Fremont High School next year.

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For Garcia, who volunteers at Jefferson High, the program has left him with a sense of empowerment.

“I’ve been in this program for two years and what I’ve seen is that many do know their rights but they are scared and don’t do anything about it,” Garcia said. “It feels good when you tell somebody that what’s happening is wrong.”


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