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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California
Southern California

New Study Sheds Light On Young Workers’ Experiences

A new study finds that young workers aren't just working for chump change: they are working to support their families and fund their educations. 

Yoshawn Smith, 24, is a young worker in the restaurant industry. He is pictured on the cover of the new UCLA study. (Carla Javier / Annenberg Media)
Yoshawn Smith, 24, is a young worker in the restaurant industry. He is pictured on the cover of the new UCLA study. (Carla Javier / Annenberg Media)
The UCLA Labor Center released a study about the experiences of young workers in Los Angeles on Wednesday. 

According to the UCLA Labor Center, it is the country’s most comprehensive study on young workers to date. Researchers analyzed 550 surveys and 30 interviews with workers between 18-29, finding that nearly half of young workers give their wages to their families among other things.

Yoshawn Smith, 24, works as a dishwasher and food runner a popular downtown restaurant to support his fiance and his three-year-old son. At most, he makes $720 per paycheck, but his wages and hours fluctuate.

“I, myself, would like to work a fulltime schedule that is set for me and not just creeping along every week changing constantly, putting more stress on me,” Smith said. 

Smith is not alone. Data from the new study shows that nine-out-of-ten laborers don’t have a set schedule at their jobs, and more than half say they’re expected to be on standby or to cover shifts they aren’t scheduled for. 

To make ends meet, Smith has to do freelance photography gigs when he’s not at his job. He said not having a set schedule makes it difficult for him to care for his toddler. 

“I would like to see more consistent schedules, more full time schedules that actually help the employee. That way, we can actually have benefits,” Smith said. 

Student researcher Jeylee Quiroz said having a stable schedule was one of the biggest issues that faced the young workers they studied.

“Young workers want more stable schedules so they can have a stable income, have more hours in order to get more pay,” Quiroz said. 

Researchers also found that over half of young workers in Los Angeles County work for less than $13.88 an hour, which is considered low-wage. 

“Los Angeles County has the largest service industry, and these jobs give low wages,” Quiroz said.

According to U.S. Census Bureau Data, retail and restaurant wages -- two industries that employ young workers -- have dropped 15.8 percent since 2000.

Student researcher Reyna Orellana said low wages are especially problematic among younger workers because over a third of them also go to school.

“If they’re in these low-wage jobs, they’re trying to afford livable wages to pay rent, to pay for school, tuition,” Orellana said. “If they’re trying to pay for this rent, school and other obligations like family obligations, it becomes very difficult to manage if they have low wages or unstable schedules.”

As part of the surveys and interviews, researchers asked young workers what they would change at their workplaces. The researchers summarized their demands as wage increases, stable schedules, benefits, respectful management and better treatment of workers.

Smith said he hopes the service industry recognizes employees as valuable, not just dumb kids who just got a job because their parents told them to.

“You work this job, you get paid this amount and the employer is just dishing it out at you every time,” Smith said. “And most of the time it’s for nothing”

Restaurant Opportunities Center policy coordinator Sophia Cheng said it is important to address these issues, like respect in the workplace, when workers are young.

“We have to make sure that when workers are first starting out in their first or second jobs, they know their rights and they have the expectation that their rights will be enforced and respected, not just words on paper,” Cheng said. 

Smith hopes these changes occur by the time his son is old enough to work.

“I hope that when he’s working that he can actually make enough where he can move out by 18 on his own and not have to worry about anything else,” Smith said. “Not have to sit there and struggle, not have to starve or constantly want to quit his job all the time.”

In the report, researchers recommend employers “develop no-tolerance policies against workplace harassment and violations.” They also suggest lawmakers pass laws regulating scheduling and wages. 

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