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Speaking Out on Labor Inequality and Misperceptions of Young Workers

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This story is part of a multi-part series in collaboration with the UCLA Labor Center on labor issues affecting Los Angeles, California and the nation. Read "Young Workers, Low-Wage Workers" for a synthesis on the UCLA Labor Center's recent report on Young Workers.

My first official job was at the age of sixteen and a half at a pizzeria near Koreatown, although I really started working before then. Before that, at twelve, I helped my mom with different duties she had to complete as an apartment manager. I knew that my parents were having financial difficulties because I would hear their conversations about who could let them borrow money, how much they owed, and what bills were going to collections. They often did not have enough each month to pay the bills. I wanted to help them out, so I applied to a cashier position at the pizzeria.

It was then that I came face-to-face with the inequalities of the workplace. The first thing that didn't seem quite right was that the manager at the pizzeria would only schedule women to clean the bathrooms, never the men. At first I didn't say anything about it, but when other female coworkers complained about it openly to me, I thought I should bring it up. I worked up the courage one day to ask my manager if he could also put some of my male coworkers on the schedule to clean the bathroom. He didn't deny it was happening. Instead he asked, "Well, does anybody else feel the same way?"

I told him yes, remembering what my coworkers had said. Yet when the manager took each of them aside personally to ask, they all said that they didn't mind. There were other instances when I noticed that the employer was not paying us correctly for overtime or holidays. My manager and owner would just shrug and tell me that they didn't do that there.

At the time, I didn't understand much about my rights or understand that organizing at work was even a possibility. Now I know that my experience was not unique. Many young people face labor law violations at work and struggle to balance school, work and their personal lives.

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Yet the general perception in the world seems to be that young people just get a job because they want extra pocket money. Or even that they are in some way deserving of less pay or mistreatment because they are young. This perception is counter to reality, and ignores the real reasons that low-income people of color go to work-- often to support their families or pay for their own educations.

Because of my experiences, I am proud to be a part of a cohort of UCLA students researching the experiences of young workers in Los Angeles. Through the UCLA Labor Center, the project aims to understand the experiences of young people from 18-29 in Los Angeles county. We surveyed over five hundred people working in grocery, retail, restaurant, and fast food throughout Los Angeles county, to get a glimpse into their real struggles and experiences. We dove deep into questions of student debt, scheduling, and working conditions.

The culmination of this work is two reports that we are writing in coordination with the UCLA Labor Center. The first report analyzes census data about young working people in Los Angeles. The second analyzes our survey data, taking a deep dive into four industries to understand young people's struggles. For us, it's not just about acknowledging what's happening but also brainstorming strategies to address the problem. Using the data in collaboration with worker centers, unions, and community organizations, we hope to change stereotypes about young people and advocate for better work practices here in Los Angeles.

It's important that more young people become aware that we are the ones that can change our own working conditions. When people experience wage theft, unfair work practices and unstable schedules, it is difficult to know what to do or how to act. Young people depend on quality jobs for their families and for their future careers. It is time to break the silence and change the story.