Yoshawn Smith is 25 and the father of a 3-year-old boy. He has been working since he was 18 as a dishwasher. His wife, Guadalupe, also 25, works in food and safety at a grocery company.
They both earn the $10-an-hour minimum wage rate in California and are struggling to make ends meet.
“It’s very difficult because every check goes to pay bills and rent,” said Smith, who lives in south central Los Angeles.
The plight of low-wage workers has been well documented but research by the University of California Los Angeles Labor Center is putting the spotlight on the challenges that young workers face, whether they’re working fulltime or part-time while in college.
As of January 2016, the national unemployment rate for all workers is 4.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But for 16-19 year olds, it’s a staggering 16 percent and 8.2 percent for 20-24 year olds.
“Jobs today for young people are not to just supplement their lives,” said Saba Waheed, research director at the UCLA Labor Center who spearheaded the survey of 559 workers aged 18 to 29. “They pay rent, they pay for food and they help their families. Then you put in the skyrocketing cost of education.”
Since the decline in manufacturing jobs, the young work primarily in retail and food service and have seen their wages drop 15.8 percent since 2000.
A third of young workers contribute financially to their households and 16.5 percent are parents. More than 12 percent live below the poverty level.
Two in five unemployed workers in Los Angeles County are young and unemployment rates in that age group is much higher than the labor force as a whole. In 2013, the rate was 9.2 percent for workers older than 29 and 16.8 percent for the young.
The Economic policy Institute Class of 2015 reports that for college graduates, the unemployment rate has risen from 5.5 percent in 2007 to 7.2 percent. The underemployment rate went from 9.6 percent to 14.9 percent.
For young high school graduates, the unemployment rate is 19.5 percent, up from 15.9 percent in 2007, and the underemployment rate is 37 percent, up from 26.8 percent.
Policies are working out of the old paradigm that young workers work to pay for fun social activities or clothes and iPhones, Waheed said.
“It’s not the world we live in anymore,” Waheed said, and the survey shows that most work to survive.
Less than 1 percent of young workers surveyed work solely to pay for recreation.
“A lot of young workers who are in their late 20s are still at entry level,” Waheed said. “Young people really need the income and deserve a better workplace.”
But many employers rely on the young for cheap and temporary labor and often expect them to juggle crazy schedules that don’t take into account family obligations, school schedules and the need to receive a consistent income.
That often results in exploitation, including no benefits and wage theft in the form of overtime and off-the-clock violations.
And in several communities — including Santa Monica and Long Beach — first-time workers get 80 percent of the minimum wage for six months.
“Nine out of 10 don’t have a set schedule,” said Jeylee Quiroz, 24, a recent UCLA graduate who worked on the project. “They put their lives on hold.”
Reyna Orellana, 24, graduated from UCLA last summer and is now working fulltime at the UCLA Labor Center as a research assistant. Like Quiroz, she worked on the survey and has advocated for young workers’ rights at city council meetings.
“No one understands what young workers are going through,” said Orellana, who still lives with her parents in south central Los Angeles. “They’re not working to play but to live.”
A quarter of them have student debt averaging more than $19,000, she said. Two-thirds receive no benefits.
Orellana was surprised by the number of young workers she interviewed who said that they were not aware that working off the clock equals wage theft.
“A third of them were asked to clock out and continue working,” she said.
That has happened to Smith.
“I had to tell my boss that if I clock out, I’m going home,” he said. “People don’t take it very well for some reason but it’s the law.”
The report, I am a #YOUNGWORKER, advises policymakers, government officials, educators and employers to pay attention to the work conditions of the nation’s future primary workforce.
It states: “Early employment experiences have lasting effects on economic security, lifelong earnings, and social well-being, and the state of young workers in Los Angeles County — and nationally — is in need of serious and sustained transformation.”