LABOR RIGHTS - While Republican-controlled state legislatures have rolled back child labor protections this year, Democratic lawmakers and rights advocates in California on Monday celebrated Gov. Gavin Newsom's signing of a first-of-its-kind law that they say will make young people less vulnerable to workplace abuses by teaching them about labor protections.
Assemblymember Liz Ortega (D-20) told the Contra Costa News that Assembly Bill 800 is aimed at "giving kids the tools to stand up for themselves" as Republican lawmakers attack unions as well as making it easier for companies to employ children as young as 14 to work in industrial facilities.
"I am so proud to announce the passage of this first-of-its-kind law requiring schools to teach our kids about their workplace rights," said Ortega. "We are seeing headlines about children abused at workplaces across the country―wage theft, violations of labor law, and even serious life-changing injuries."
Under A.B. 800, all public high schools in California will hold "Workplace Readiness Week" as part of their curriculum.
Students will gain a "strong understanding of their rights as workers, as well as their explicit rights as employed minors" and learn about their right to join or organize a union in their workplace.
The law intends "to equip pupils with this knowledge to protect them from retaliation and discrimination, to ensure that these young workers receive all wages and benefits to which they are entitled, to empower them to refuse unsafe work when necessary, and to prepare them to assert their labor rights whenever these rights are threatened," according to the bill text.
Newsom announced the bill's signing on Saturday.
The California Labor Federation, which helped develop the legislation, noted that the law was approved shortly after a federal court ordered the owners of 14 Subway franchise stores in the San Francisco Bay Area to pay employees nearly $1 million in back pay and damages.
An investigation found that the owners assigned minors to work hours that are illegal under California law and required children as young as 14 to operate dangerous equipment, as well as illegally keeping tips instead of distributing them among workers and failing to pay employees regularly.
Such reports are "why we worked on A.B. 800," said the federation.
"Too often, young workers face wage theft, unsafe conditions, sexual harassment, or other abuses at work," Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, chief officer of the California Labor Federation, told the Contra Costa News. "By requiring that high school students be taught their rights as employees, A.B. 800 empowers young people with the information and tools they need to understand their rights as workers and protects them against workplace abuses."
Republicans in a number of states and in Congress have claimed to want to prioritize "workforce development"—making education about workplace rights "a commonsense no-brainer," according to the operator of the Daily Union Election account on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
In 2021, 109 workers aged 19 or younger died from work-related injuries in the United States, and more than 33,000 teenagers were hospitalized for serious injuries sustained at work.
In July, a 16-year-old boy from Guatemala named Duvan Pérez died from injurieshe got while cleaning equipment at a poultry plant in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are barred from hiring anyone under the age of 18 to work in slaughtering, meat processing, or packing facilities, with limited exceptions. The law bans workers from operating or cleaning meat processing equipment.
Minors are disproportionately employed in sectors that account for nearly half of all wage theft claims, which totaled more than $338 million in stolen wages in 2021, and in industries where sexual harassment, discrimination, and abuse from clientele or management is reported at high rates.
(Julia Conley is a staff writer for Common Dreams which first published this article.)