- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2001

Tracee Whitfield was a little worried about her final exam in human anatomy and physiology. The 17-year-old senior at Woodrow Wilson High School in the District hopes to be a pediatrician when she finishes her education.

Now, however, she juggles her time between schoolwork and a job as a $7.50-per-hour bookseller at the B. Dalton bookstore in Union Station.

"I get home around 11; then I have to study," Tracee says. "I get up around 6:30. I´m like real tired when I go to school."

However, the alternative to the 22 hours per week she works in the evenings and weekends is worse, in her view.

"It comes in handy making your own money instead of asking your parents all the time," she says. She maintains a 2.5 grade point average and believes she can do well enough during finals this year.

Tracee could be a textbook case of America´s 5 million working high school students younger than 18. Although she just wants a little after-school income, she also is an example of why legislators in some states are re-examining child labor laws.

A new National Academy of Sciences report challenges the notion that after-school jobs teach teens responsibility and help them in their later careers.

The report says teens who work more than 20 hours per week often have lower grades and higher rates of depression and alcohol use than other teens. In fact, they can damage their long-term career prospects when too much work hurts their grades.

During the past 20 years, the percentage of employed 16- and 17-year-olds has fluctuated only slightly from the current 35 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition to the usual staples of snack food, movies and cosmetics, today´s teen-agers are spending significant portions of their money on cell phones, compact discs and electronic organizers.

"There´s no doubt that spending is at an all-time high for teens," says Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited, a market research firm based in Northbrook, Ill. "In 2000, teens spent $155 billion. Teens today have more choices than ever before in terms of how to spend that money. The money is burning a hole in their pocket. They can´t wait to go out and spend it on something."

However, the statistics do not answer the question of whether the extras money can buy are worth it.

"Working provides benefits to children and adolescents, but the benefits do not come without potential risks to the workers´ physical, emotional, educational and social development," says the National Academy of Sciences report, titled "Protecting Youth at Work." "Because so many children and adolescents participate in the U.S. workforce, and undoubtedly will continue to do so, the issue is not whether they should work, but what circumstances cause working to be detrimental, what can be done to avoid those circumstances, and how working can be made more beneficial."

Working for money

There is little doubt why children and adolescents work. The report says, "he primary reason seems to be money. Whether the money young people earn goes toward helping pay family bills or toward their own needs, income, rather than the work experience itself, seems the main motivating factor."

Teens working at shopping malls in the Washington area agree.

Randall Villavicencio, a cashier at Popeye´s Chicken and Biscuits at Westfield Shoppingtown in Wheaton, says he always manages to squeeze in enough study time between his return home from school and his departure to his evening and weekend job.

He doesn´t think his job interferes with his career plans. "I just want to travel to see the world," says Randall, a 16-year-old junior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. "Probably the Marines. Recon."

He gets B´s and C´s in a course load made up of English, math, history, graphics and media. He was not worried about his final exams.

His $6.50-per-hour job relieves the financial burden on his parents and helps him save for longer-term goals, he says. He works 20 to 24 hours per week "basically to get a car and have money so I can have fun," he says. "And of course for college."

His father, Luis Villavicencio, supports his son´s after-school work. "It´s important to help him learn how to earn money and maintain himself in life," Mr. Villavicencio says.

His father saw no evidence the job interferes with his studies. "He likes to study," Mr. Villavicencio says. "He always leaves a little time aside."

How much is too much?

Lawmakers in some states, including Alabama, Connecticut and Massachusetts, have been trying to limit the number of hours and how late teens work. In Massachusetts, the maximum of hours teens are allowed to work is 48. State lawmakers want to set the limit at 30.

Connecticut lawmakers passed a law in 1998 saying 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds could work no more than 32 hours per week, down from 48.

New York sets the limit at 28 during school weeks. In New Jersey, teens can work no more than 40 hours per week.

No proposals are pending in the legislatures of Maryland or Virginia or in the D.C. Council to change the jurisdictions´ child labor laws.

Any changes would need to come from states, rather than the federal government, the National Academy of Sciences report says. "Standards set by [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] under the Occupational Safety and Health Act do not specifically target young workers or their employers in its standards-setting or enforcement activities," the report says. Instead, the federal agency delegates the job to state bodies.

The federal regulations prohibit 12- and 13-year-olds from working in nearly all jobs except for delivering newspapers. The federal rules also restrict 14- and 15-year-olds from working more than three hours and past 7 p.m. on school days. The only restrictions on work hours for 16- and 17-year-olds come from the states.

In the District, 16- and 17-year-olds cannot work more than eight hours in any day or more than six days per week. They also are forbidden from working before 6 a.m. or after 10 p.m.

Maryland forbids 16- and-17-year-olds from more than 12 hours per day of combined school and job. In other words, if a student spends six hours at school, he or she could spend no more than six hours on a job outside of school. No more than eight of the 12 hours can be spent at a job.

Virginia imposes no regulations on the hours 16- and 17-year-olds can work.

The District, Maryland and Virginia all forbid anyone younger than 18 years old from many hazardous jobs, such as working with caustic chemicals or operating dangerous machinery.

OSHA´s records show that about 70 teen-agers a year are killed on the job, often because they lack the safety training and experience of adult workers.

Finding a balance

School officials in the region express concern that after-school workloads are contributing to lagging academic performance.

Ron Peiffer, Maryland´s assistant superintendent of schools, says, "Working at the local fast-food place, students get focused on earning enough money to buy a car and put gas in the car. It´s a very significant distraction from school. Sometimes the jobs outside of school tend to be a liability in terms of the kids´ long-term goals."

Linda Wallinger, director of secondary instruction for the Virginia Department of Education, says, "It´s something students have done for many years. Some students balance it very well and others not so successfully. It really depends on the student. It also depends on the job the student is doing and the employer."

After-school work should be scaled back when it interferes with "the overriding importance of education," she says.

Robert Palmer, spokesman for McDonald´s Corp.´s regional office in Bethesda, agrees that too much work is bad for high school students but he adds that among the jobs available to teens, he thinks McDonald´s jobs are some of the best.

"I think more people have started their careers at McDonald´s than in the military these days," Mr. Palmer says. "Students are some of our best crew members."

The company operates 525 restaurants in the Baltimore-Washington region, with about 20,000 employees. About 6,000 of them are younger than 18. Work schedules can be made flexible to fit the demands of school, Mr. Palmer says.

McDonald´s recently partnered with the D.C. Department of Employment Services to hire 200 teen-agers under the department´s Passport to Summer Work program.

Kitty Porterfield, Fairfax County Public Schools spokeswoman, notes, "There are economic reasons to hire part-time help, and the high school students, generally speaking, are available at lower rates than adults."

Some of the concern about after-school jobs springs from America´s competitiveness in the world market. On many scales of academic achievement, America´s teens have lagged behind their counterparts in Japan, Germany, Korea and other countries.

Among the reasons seems to be an emphasis on work outside of school that sometimes overshadows work in school.

A recent study by the International Labor Organization showed that American teen-agers work more than high school students in other countries. Among 16- to 19-year-olds, 53 percent of the American teens work. In Japan, just 18 percent of 15- to 19-year olds work. In Germany, 30.8 percent of teens in the same age group work.

A National Research Council study found that 16- and 17-year-olds who work more than 20 hours per week lack the time and energy for homework. They also lose out on opportunities for social and intellectual development that come from participation in school clubs and athletics.

The teens also are more likely to indulge in alcohol, partly because they have extra money for amenities and partly because they copy their adult co-workers, the study found.

The researchers found the cutoff between good and bad consequences to be no more than 10 hours of work per week. Up to 10 hours, the teens learn responsibility and work skills that benefit them as adults. More than 10 hours, and the schoolwork and activities that can set them onto lifelong career paths suffer.

Craig Bass, a high school counselor specialist for Montgomery County Public Schools, agrees with the 10-hour rule.

"If a student can have a job primarily on the weekend, my experience is that there are going to be minor issues with school," Mr. Bass says, "but once it creeps into the school week, I would monitor it very closely."

In many cases, however, the jobs complement education, he says.

"For students who have a career interest in mind, it gives meaning to their education and motivates them," Mr. Bass says.

Benefits of working

Teens from underprivileged homes seem to benefit the most from after-school work, according to the studies. It promotes self-discipline, provides them with good adult role models and gives them income they otherwise would be denied. It also helps their parents by allowing the teens to spend their own money on movies, gasoline, junk food and CDs instead of taking from the family income.

Camille London, Tracee´s co-worker at B. Dalton in Union Station, could be a good example of the benefits of after-school work. She says her grandparents, with whom she lives, are proud of her for holding a job.

"It gives me something positive to do with my time instead of just hanging around outside," says Camille, a 16-year-old junior at Dunbar High School in the District.

More than anything, she likes the income. "It helps me out because I need the money," she says. "I buy takeout food for myself, clothes. I get my hair done."

Her working hours vary between 14 and 22 hours per week, most of them on weekends. Her employer gives her the option of taking off a few days to study for finals if she needs it.

She plans to go to cosmetology school and hopes eventually to own a hair salon. She uses her free hours at Dunbar to study, which she says allows her to work and still maintain adequate grades.

In most cases, the solution to any problems created by after-school work lies with parents or guardians, educators say. When grades suffer, parents should intervene to limit their children to more manageable work schedules.

Though Mr. Peiffer says after-school jobs "could give an opportunity to teach responsibility and the value of money," he adds: "A parent ought to be involved in guiding a student in what they do outside of school to prepare for school. If that involves putting some limits on work outside of school, I think that´s absolutely appropriate."

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