Hot Labor School Year: California Leads the Way to Educate High School Students on Workplace Rights

Coral del Mar Murphy-Marcos

Geoffrey Brown and Rhea-Mari Fernandes, Base Exchange Arby's food service workers, assemble sandwiches during the Arby's grand opening in the Base Exchange Jan. 10, 2014, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Arby's started as a small sandwich shop in Boardman, Ohio serving hot, freshly sliced roast beef sandwiches. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Matthew Lancaster)
Photo by Exchange Associate | CC BY 2.0 DEED

In a groundbreaking move, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 800 into law on September 30, an initiative that equips high school students with the knowledge to safeguard their workplace rights and defend against potential abuses.

Sponsored by Assemblymember Liz Ortega (D-San Leandro), the law mandates public high schools to create a Workplace Readiness Week to teach students about their rights at work, protections for underage employees, and the process of joining or forming unions.

“With Hot Labor Summer, we’re seeing hundreds of thousands of workers across the country coming together to demand what they deserve,” Ortega told the Labor Center. “But at the same time, there’s been report after report of minors, and especially migrant children, being exploited at work, having their wages stolen, and even suffering life-changing injuries. I think that contrast really showed that we needed a law like AB 800, to educate our kids about their rights.”

This move comes in the face of concerning national trends; while reports of serious workplace injuries and exploitation involving minors are on the rise, several Republican-controlled states have rolled back protections, allowing children as young as 14 to work in hazardous environments.

Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, Chief Officer of the California Labor Federation, highlighted the widespread issue of young workers facing wage theft, unsafe conditions, and various forms of abuse at work.

The new law “empowers young people with the information and tools they need to understand their rights as workers and protects them against workplace abuses,” Gonzalez Fletcher said in a statement.

In 2021 alone, California witnessed nearly 19,000 claims filed by workers for unpaid wages, totaling a staggering $338 million in stolen earnings, according to Ortega. The fields predominantly occupied by young workers – such as food service, retail, childcare, and office support – accounted for almost 45% of these wage theft claims, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

More than half of American teenagers hold jobs, often in sectors plagued by prevalent wage theft and an elevated risk of serious injuries, especially those involving machinery, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2021,109 teens died due to work-related incidents in the United States. During the same period, more than 33,000 teenagers experienced workplace injuries that required immediate emergency room attention.

In May, employees at a Popeyes in Oakland picketed after teen workers, including one who was 13, said they were pressured to work long, late hours in violation of child labor laws.

“Sexual harassment and wage theft are also rampant at this location,” Fight For 15 Nor Cal wrote in a tweet.

AB-800, co-sponsored by the California Federation of Teachers, was introduced in February. The bill says that all California public schools, including charter schools, will teach kids about “prohibitions against misclassification of employees as independent contractors, child labor, wage and hour protections, worker safety…the right to organize a union in the workplace,” and the labor movement’s historical role in winning protections for workers.

Schools will also be required to include these topics into the curriculum during the regular school year for juniors and seniors. The bill also requires that every student applying for a work permit get a print out with their workplace rights and a link to more resources on the web, based on materials created by the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, said that employed youth, usually working entry-level, part-time jobs, “are often unaware of their basic rights, leaving them vulnerable to wage theft, unsafe working conditions and workplace injuries, discrimination and sexual harassment.”

“That needs to change,” Weingarten added in a statement to the Labor Center.