School’s out for summer! Or it will be soon, and many teens will start summer jobs or even their very first real job. Yet schools do little, if anything, to prepare teens for the realities of the workplace. I’m always shocked when I encounter teens whose parents drag them to me after they suffer workplace abuse with no idea they have any rights at all.
So, if you’re a teen entering the workplace or thinking of applying for a job, read this. If you’re a parent, friend or relative of a teen who is entering the workforce, please print this and show it to them.
Here are 13 things teens need to know about workplace rights that their school probably didn’t teach them:
1. Minimum Wage: Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. However, there is something called the youth minimum wage, which means that for the first 90 calendar days of any new job you can be paid as little as $4.25 per hour if you are under 20. State minimum wages may be higher. Here in Florida, the minimum wage is $7.79. Tipped employees may be paid a minimum wage of $2.13/hour as long as their wages including tips equal at least the higher of the state and federal minimum wage. State minimum wages for tipped employees vary. In Florida, it’s $4.77/hour. More details about wages can be found here.
2. Hours: If you are under 16, under Federal law your work hours are limited. You can’t work during school hours at all, and you can’t work more than 3 hours on a school day, including Friday; more than 18 hours a week when school is in session; more than 8 hours a day when school is not in session; more than 40 hours a week when school is not in session; and before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. on any day, except from June 1st through Labor Day, when you can work until 9 p.m. Federal law doesn’t limit work hours for teens 16 or older, but your state laws may. For instance, Florida law says if you’re under 18 you can’t work during school hours (with exceptions), and that if you’re 16 or 17 you may only work up to 30 hours per week, not before 6:30 a.m. or later than 11 p.m. and for no more than 8 hours a day when school is scheduled the following day, and for no more than 6 consecutive days.
3. Breaks: Federal law doesn’t require any work breaks. However, many states require work breaks, especially for workers under 18. In Florida, workers under 18 are not allowed to work more than 4 consecutive hours without a 30 minute uninterrupted work break. For breaks of more than 20 minutes, employers don’t have to pay. Breaks 20 minutes and under are hours worked that need to be paid.
4. Sexual Harassment: If your boss, coworker, customer, vendor or potential boss is harassing you because of your gender or gender identity, that’s sexual harassment, and it’s illegal. This includes unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, offensive comments about men or women in general, off-color jokes, touching, and other harassment that is either so severe or so frequent that it alters the terms and conditions of your employment. A single offhand comment may not be sexual harassment, but a single incident that is severe could be. As a minor, you have added protection. Any adult sexually harassing you is probably committing a crime, and could be a sexual predator. It is really important that you read the company’s sexual harassment policy when you start working and write down where you are supposed to report it if it occurs. You don’t have to be afraid, and you should not let yourself become a victim. People you can and probably should report sexual harassment to are your Human Resources department at work and your parents. If you’ve been touched, then you may want to contact the police. If you see someone else being sexually harassed, you should report it. Harassers will keep doing it, and their behavior will get worse, unless an adult stops them.
5. Contracts: In most states, if you’re under 18 you can’t be bound by a contract, including an employment contract. You (or your parents) can void a contract you’ve signed while underage. However, once you turn 18, you probably can’t void it anymore. Employment contracts might have provisions saying you can’t work for a competitor for a year or two, waiving your right to a jury trial, confidentiality obligations, and other important clauses. If you are asked to sign a contract, always read it and keep a copy once you’ve signed. If you don’t understand it, talk to your parents or an employment lawyer in your state about it.
6. Internships: While many teens take unpaid internships for the summer, most employers get internships wrong. If your internship is not a real learning experience for you, then you probably have to be paid for the work you do. An internship is supposed to be training similar to that you would receive in a vocational school. Filing, stuffing envelopes, and answering phones should normally be paid. Internship assignments should build on each other so you develop more skills, similar to the way each chapter of a textbook builds on the other. You should be getting training that benefits you, and you should be getting more benefit than the company. If they can make money off what you're doing, or if you're saving them from having to pay another employee, you probably have to be paid.
7. At-will: If you live anywhere but Montana, your employment is probably at-will, meaning your employer can fire you for any reason or no reason at all (with some exceptions). They can fire you because they’re in a bad mood, because they didn’t like your shirt, or because you lipped off to them like you lip off to your parents. Exceptions that would make a firing illegal include firing due to discrimination, making a worker’s comp claim, and blowing the whistle on illegal activity of the company. If your boss tells you to do something that isn’t illegal (or sexual harassment), then do it. No eye-rolling, back-talk or attitude.
8. Social Media and Cell Phones: You are expected to work during work hours. That means no texting, emailing, calling, tweeting, instagraming, facebooking, downloading, or surfing at work, unless it’s work-related. If you check your texts, emails, or social media on a company computer, cell phone or other device, the company probably has the right to look at it. If you view or send inappropriate pictures, jokes, or videos, you can be fired for doing so. There is very little privacy in the workplace, and you have few rights. Assume you’re being watched at all times at work and you won’t go wrong. Oh, and remember all those party pics and embarrassing photos you posted before you started applying for work? Employers and potential employers can see them. You probably want to check your social media pages and pull down anything you can that might be inappropriate for an employer to see.
9. Human Resources: If your employer is big enough, you probably have someone who is designated as the Human Resources person or a whole department called “Human Resources.” It may be referred to as HR. This is the place to go for information about work rules, to report sexual harassment or discrimination, and you’ll probably have to go there on your first day to fill out a stack of forms. While they can be very helpful if you have questions or concerns, they aren’t your buddies. Human Resources represents your employer, not you. They aren’t your mom or your best friend, so don’t go to them with every petty complaint, confess you did something wrong, or tell them about the wild party you went to over the weekend. Keep it professional.
10. Discrimination: Discrimination against you for being you isn’t illegal. However, discrimination and harassment due to race, sex, sexual identity, national origin, disability, religion, color, pregnancy and genetic information are. In some states, there are more categories of illegal discrimination. For instance, in Florida it’s illegal to discriminate against you because you’re too young or because of marital status. Whether sexual orientation is a protected category depends on your state and local law. No federal law bars sexual orientation discrimination.
11. Bullying: While your school might have zero tolerance for bullying, your workplace may be a bullying free-for-all. No federal or state law exists that prohibits workplace bullying. However, workplace bullies are very much like school bullies: they focus on the weak and the different. If you need to complain about a bully, make sure you do it in a way that’s protected. If the bully is picking on the weak, are they weak because of a disability, pregnancy, or age? If they’re picking on the different, is the difference based on race, national origin, age, or religion? If you report illegal discrimination, the law protects you from retaliation. If you report bullying, no law protects you.
12. Dangerous Work: It is every employer’s duty to maintain a safe workplace. If you think your workplace is unsafe, you can contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to report dangerous conditions and get more information. Certain jobs are deemed too hazardous for teens under 18 to do. A plain English description of the 17 jobs considered too dangerous for minors is here. There’s a different list for agricultural work that applies to workers under 16.
13. What Kind Of Work You Can Do: Depending on your age, there may be limits on the type of work you can do. If you are under 14, you can work, but your options are limited. You can deliver newspapers, babysit, act or perform, work as a homeworker gathering evergreens and making evergreen wreaths, or work for a business owned by your parents as long as it’s not mining, manufacturing or one of the occupations designated as hazardous. If you are 14 or 15, you can do things like retail, lifeguarding, running errands, creative work, computer work, clean-up and yard work that doesn’t use dangerous equipment, some food service and other restaurant work, some grocery work, loading and unloading, and even do some work in sawmills and wood shops. We’re talking non-manufacturing and non-hazardous jobs only. If you are 16 or 17, you can do any job that isn’t labeled as hazardous.
The Department of Labor has a website where you can get more information about employment laws that apply to teens. An interactive advisor about federal law may be found here.
Of course, my book Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired can help anyone new to the workplace since it covers how to handle workplace crises and issues from the interview and application, to your first day and that giant stack of papers, to workplace disputes, to promotions, to termination, and even post-termination.