Assemblymember Liz Ortega introduces bill to teach high schoolers about workers’ rights

Assemblymember Liz Ortega (D-Hayward)

Hayward’s representative in the state Assembly wants to make sure California’s young people know their rights upon entering the workforce.

On Monday, Assemblymember Liz Ortega (D-Hayward), in partnership with the California Labor Federation, introduced Assembly Bill 800, which would require the state’s public schools to observe Workplace Readiness Week during the first full week of May. During that week, high school juniors and seniors would be required to learn about their rights as workers as part of the regular curriculum.

“As a labor champion who has fought for workers for over two decades, I know firsthand how important it is to teach young workers their rights,” Ortega said in a statement. “By requiring that high school students be taught their rights as employees, AB 800 will empower them with the tools and knowledge to protect and advocate for themselves in the workplace.”

The belief that idleness in children is a sin and the rise of capitalism during the 18th century created the conditions for children to become a source of cheap and easy-to-exploit labor in the U.S. A long reform movement helped secure children rights both in and out of the workplace, but that work isn’t done.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division has seen increases in child labor investigations and violations since 2015, and “in fiscal year 2021, the division found 2,819 minors employed in violation of the law and assessed employers with nearly $3.4 million in civil money penalties,” a July news release states.

“Many students have to find jobs in high school to help their families make ends meet. They often experience sexual harassment, wage theft, and misclassification without knowing there are laws to protect them,” Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, principal officer of the California Labor Federation, said in a statement. “This bill will ensure that as young people enter the workforce, they know about their rights to a fair wage, to a safe workplace, and to join a union.”

The release from Ortega states that the bill will not only equip young people with information about the right to refuse unsafe work and to organize a union, but also help them pass that information along to their parents, who might be particularly vulnerable to exploitation if they are immigrants. About 39.4% of the population in Assembly District 20 is foreign-born, according to census data.

“As a youth in a low-income community, I am ecstatic to see initiative taking place regarding youth knowing their working rights,” Hayward High School junior Diane Nguyen said in a statement. “Many of my peers have to take on jobs in order to help support their families, which can lead to them being easily exploited in the workplace. I am very grateful to see Assemblymember Ortega take action in order to protect the youth in my community.”

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