When high school lets out for summer, teens everywhere are earning money, and experience, at summer jobs. According to the Pew Research Center, over 6 million American teens were employed in paid jobs during the summer of 2023. A teen’s summer job, which is typically their first experience in the workforce, represents an important personal milestone, and is significant in developing both mental and financial independence.

For all of its important benefits, a first job also comes with unique risks and challenges for young people. Unfortunately, young people are more vulnerable in the workplace. Teen workers face higher levels of workplace injury, exploitation, and harassment than older workers. If you are a teen, have a teen, or are employing a teen, it is important to be aware of the specific challenges that come with teen employment, and to know how to respond when things don’t seem right. Knowledge of employment law and common abuses in the workplace is important in order to promote a positive and safe summer job experience.

Labor Laws

Employment laws, established by federal and state governments, grant all workers specific rights and protections, and manage the relationships between employers and employees. Federal and state employment laws apply to all employees and establish the minimum guidelines for worker rights, including the rights of minors. Minors are additionally impacted by laws that establish more rigorous protections, including child labor laws.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) sets the federal standard for child labors laws. According the DOL:

  • Children under the age of 14 are only allowed to work in certain positions. They may work either in a business owned entirely by their parents that is not hazardous, or in jobs such as babysitting.
  • Children between the ages of 14 and 15 are only allowed to work outside of school hours, and not before 7am or after 9pm. They may not work more than 40 hours per week, 8 hours per day. They may not work hazardous jobs, including but not limited to, jobs using power-driven machinery, ladders, and scaffolds.
  • 16 and 17 year-olds are not limited in the hours that they work, but they may not work hazardous jobs, including but not limited to, jobs using power-driven machinery.

State law may establish more rigorous legal protection. In California, minors are protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which applies to employees of all ages, and by Omnibus Child Labor Reform Act (AB 1900), which only applies to minors. Youth employment law in California additionally states that:

  • Minors under 16 years of age may not even accompany parents to workplaces considered to be hazardous.
  • Minors are required to get a permit to work for their specific employer before their work begins.

Injuries and the Importance of Workplace Safety

While the law states that working teens may not work in a dangerous environment, some employers may disregard the law and subject teens to workplace hazards. The CDC reports an annual average of 70 teen fatalities, and an average of 70,000 injuries resulting in trips to the emergency room, due to workplace injury and poor summer job safety. Work related injuries are more common among teens than adult employees due to their lack of work experience. Young employees typically have more difficulty advocating for safety measures, safety training, supervision, and personal protective equipment.

As a teen worker you have the legal right to a safe and healthy workplace, and are entitled to worker safety training. If you do get hurt or sick because of your job, you may be legally entitled to payment for medical care, workers’ compensation, and lost wages. You have the right to refuse to work if the job is immediately dangerous to your life or health.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) set federal workplace safety standards. By law, no worker under 18 years of age may drive as part of their job, operate a forklift, operate or clean powered equipment such as saws, meat slicer, baking machines, work in demolition, roofing, minim, logging, meatpacking or slaughtering, or work where explosives are stored.

In addition, young persons who are 14 or 15 years old may not bake or cook on the job, operate power-driven machinery, work on a ladder or scaffold, working in warehouses, construction, building, or loading trucks, or railroad car.

If you are a teen, and believe that you are being asked to participate in a dangerous or unlawful work environment, you have the right to make a report to OSHA.

Harassment of Minor Employees

Minors experience elevated levels of sexual harassment and sexual assault at work. Studies have suggested that nearly 33% of boys and 66% of girls report being sexually harassed at their summer jobs. Harassment by coworkers is most frequently reported, but teens likewise experience harassment from supervisors, mentors, and customers. Sexual harassment, and sexual assault, can negatively impact young people’s long term mental and physical health, as well as their education and future career paths. 

The Federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) prohibits sexual harassment against anyone, including minors, in the workplace. In California, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) further restricts sexual harassment at work. Teen employees have the right to report any harassment they face at work directly to the EEOC and or the DFEH.

Staying Safe as a Teen at Work

In order to stay safe as a teen at work, it is important to know your rights. Take time to understand the federal and state laws that dictate how many hours you may work, what kinds of jobs you can have, and what equipment to stay away from. If you are asked to work hours that are beyond the scope of the law speak up. If you feel that someone is behaving in a harassing or inappropriate manner to you or anybody else at work, report the behavior to someone you trust, either a parent, teacher, or supervisor. Remember that the laws are in place to keep teens safe, and while speaking up may be difficult or uncomfortable, it is important to ensure your health and safety.

Reach Out to an Attorney

If you as a teen, guardian of a teen, or teen employer have any questions or concerns about teen safety in the workplace, reach out to Avloni Law for a consultation.