American Youth in the Workplace: Legal Aberration, Failed Social Policy

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

"'Young people who spend more time flipping burgers and stacking boxes than preparing for a meaningful career may be hindering their own futures and the future of this country.'"

--Mario Cuomo (1)

Today, the workplace is as much a part of American teen life as the Friday night football game and the high school prom. Students in the 1990s were twice as likely to be working than students in 1950. (2) In 2001, an estimated 3.7 million adolescents between the ages of fifteen and seventeen were employed. (3) Likewise, large numbers of children under fifteen were working during the same time period. (4) The United States has the highest percentage of working children of any developed nation: many work long hours even during the school week. (5) These statistics have remained stable for at least a decade.

Employment does present potential benefits for the adolescent. Working can provide valuable lessons about responsibility, punctuality, interacting with the public, and finances. However, work in the United States poses substantial immediate and long-term safety and health risks for youth workers. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health ("NIOSH") reports an average of sixty-seven minors die each year from work-related injuries. (6) Additionally, 77,000 are treated in hospital emergency facilities for injuries. (7) Annually, over 200,000 minors are injured on the job. (8)

Other indicators of a minor's well being, such as academic performance, are also negatively affected by employment, particularly by working excessive hours. (9) Most scholars consider twenty or more hours per week--termed "high intensity work"--to be the threshold for negative outcomes. (10) High school students who work twenty hours or more have lower grade point averages than students who do not work, or who work fewer hours. (11) They are more likely to be suspended from school, (12) to use cigarettes or other harmful substances, (13) to have more traffic accidents, (14) and to experience a wide variety of other negative outcomes. Subgroups of child workers--particularly those in agriculture--are at even greater health and educational risks. (15)

Like most social science propositions and data, great controversy surrounds the appropriate variables to be considered and the conclusions to be drawn from those variables. (16) Drawing causal links is difficult: correlation should not be equated with causation. The association between work intensity and academic outcomes may, for example, be attributable to pre-existing differences: youths who were previously performing poorly in lower grades may be working more intensely in high school. Nevertheless, the prestigious Institute of Medicine, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded after a thorough review of the literature that "high-intensity work ... is associated with unhealthy and problem behaviors." (17)

Teens are working after choices are made about priorities in allocating time. Parent, child, and state form a triangle in decision-making regarding the lives of children. In Roman law and English common law, children were totally subject to the wishes of their parents--particularly the father. (18) Although the father owed duties of support and protection, Blackstone reported that children lived in the "empire of the father." (19) Today, doctrinal changes in constitutional law and statutes have equalized the legal position of the father and the mother. (20) In broad strokes, however, contemporary American law reflects the following dominant paradigm: minors are incompetent to make major life decisions and parents are entrusted with the task of making these choices because they will normally act in the child's best interest.

Many legal scholars have argued that the formal lines of physical age or emancipation should not be the sole determinants of when an adolescent may be legally authorized to make important life decisions. …