Youth Workers Are Fighting for Pay Equity

by Ace Grimm
by Ken Smith

Youth workers in Nebraska are fighting for pay equity in the face of state legislative proposals to pay them less than they deserve. Unfortunately, these workers find little protection in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which excludes them from certain wage protections enjoyed by other workers.

When LB 15, a bill that sought to create a subminimum wage for Nebraska workers between 14 and 17 years old, was introduced in the legislature, workers from across the state joined together in opposition. Opponents of the bill cited a myriad of reasons why depriving youth workers of broad wage protections is bad policy, harms youth workers and their families, and perpetuates economic injustices that fall disproportionately on the shoulders of workers of color.

The same arguments against a youth subminimum wage in Nebraska also illustrate the harm caused by excluding youth workers from full protection under the FLSA. One of the youth leaders who spoke out against LB 15 had the following to share regarding their experience being treated differently and paid less than their older coworkers while putting in the same or sometimes more work:

“Minimum wage is a constant battle between employers and employees; just this week a big conversation started in our workplace around the conditions that young working people like me must deal with in the essential industries that rely on us and the low pay we get in return. Employees aged 16–19 make up the largest demographic in restaurants and other food services—these businesses couldn’t function without us. Yet the balance on our biweekly paychecks doesn’t cover the hard work and sweat we put in day to day. I myself have been told to become a manager considering I do all the things our managers can’t seem to handle on their own. But I’d still be paid the same, so I have no desire to do it.

“I’ve worked at a fast-food restaurant for $12.50/hour since I was 15. Because people rely on us for essential services, we are constantly busy. We are also constantly short-staffed. Tight limits set by my employer on labor hours squeeze as much productivity out of us as possible. Because of this, and because being in high school means I am unavailable for eight hours a day, I cannot get enough hours. Young employees like me rely on our incomes to support ourselves like adults. We’ve seen a lot of exclusion when it comes to children versus adults. Young workers are great at getting things done, adults see us as convenient and hardworking, but not enough to get the pay we absolutely deserve. I put so much effort and constant energy into my work ethic and find myself constantly contemplating: is it worth it?

“I’m exhausted having to maintain this role of acting like a manager, overclock working times, and dealing with customers who treat me as if I’m not a literal child who isn’t run down by all the other responsibilities. I just wish I could get paid more. I asked for a raise just recently after two years of working there but was denied due to the set wage my employer pays for the position, even for veteran staff like myself versus other kids just starting and doing the same job. It’s just unfair for the amount of work we put in. We deserve more credit, more recognition, and more money. I want the workplace to be fair and not ageist.”

We deserve more credit, more recognition, and more money. I want the workplace to be fair and not ageist.

Youth workers in Nebraska pushed back against creating a double standard in Nebraska’s wage laws in which they would be paid less for equal work. The reasons for the pushback were clear: they deserve the same wage as their colleagues who they were working alongside, and many youth workers are working hard to help support their families. One of the workers who testified in opposition to LB 15 stated that if the bill were to pass, our labor laws would be treating them as a child despite the fact that they bear the daily responsibilities of an adult.

Fortunately, due in part to the bold advocacy of youth workers, LB 15 failed to advance this session in Nebraska. However, the fight is far from over. Just as there is still work to be done in statehouses around the country to ensure that youth workers benefit from the full protection of state labor laws, it is also well past time for federal protections under the FLSA to fully include youth workers once and for all.

Ace Grimm is a youth worker and advocate who has testified before the Nebraska legislature against bills to establish a youth subminimum wage. Ken Smith is economic justice program director with Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest.

Read essays from workers and advocates whose direct experience with the FLSA’s shortcomings offers a starting point for discussion and action to change it:

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