May Jobs Report: Good Jobs for Young Workers

Nationwide—The unemployment rate inched up to 4.0% in May, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment also increased among teenage workers, who typically face significantly higher unemployment rates than their older counterparts. Unemployment rates only count workers who are actively seeking work—teens who are not looking for jobs are not counted as unemployed.

There were major racial disparities among teenage workers: the unemployment rate for Black workers age 16-19 was 13.9% in May, compared to 11.0% for white teenage workers. Latinx teens confronted an unemployment rate of 15.5%. This compares to overall unemployment rates of 6.1% for Black workers, 5.0% for Latinx workers, 3.1% for Asian workers, and 3.5% for white workers in May.  Continuing disparities in unemployment rates are a result of structural racism in the U.S. labor market, including persistent occupational segregation.

“At a time when many teenagers are just starting their summer jobs, policymakers must focus not only on job opportunities but on protecting vulnerable young workers from dangerous work environments, long hours, and unfair pay,” said Rebecca Dixon, president and CEO of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). “The U.S. Department of Labor documents an appalling 88% increase in child labor violations by companies since 2019, including serious violations by fast food companies, manufacturers, and poultry processing plants, like the one in Mississippi where Duvan Pérez, a 16-year-old boy who migrated from Guatemala, was fatally injured last summer.”

Even as the U.S. Department of Labor and other agencies are renewing efforts to stop exploitative child labor, many states are moving to roll back child labor protections. A new law in Indiana eliminates all state work-hour restrictions for 16- and 17-year-olds and extends legal work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds, while Iowa and West Virginia are allowing companies to hire teenagers in hazardous occupations, such as roofing. The Economic Policy Institute finds that overall, 31 states have introduced bills to weaken child labor protections since 2021.

Some states are also acting to strengthen child labor laws and enforcement. This year, for example, Utah, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Rhode Island all introduced legislation to eliminate the lower minimum wage paid to teenage workers in their states. Although many teen workers provide essential income to their households, federal law allows companies to pay young workers a subminimum wage of just $4.25 an hour. Economists find that higher minimum wages have no effect on teen unemployment.

Policymakers concerned about teen unemployment could consider initiatives like New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which offers publicly funded summer job opportunities for the city’s youth. In addition, a Jobseekers Allowance would provide a federal benefit to young people and others who are looking for work but don’t have enough recent work experience to qualify for unemployment insurance.

The Jobseekers Allowance is a core part of the Unemployment Insurance Modernization and Recession Readiness Act, introduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Representative Don Beyer (D-VA), which would also strengthen unemployment insurance in general by mandating that states offer at least 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, raising benefit amounts to replace a greater share of workers’ prior earnings, and increasing coverage for part-time workers, temp workers, and workers whose earnings fluctuate over time. The bill also modernizes the Extended Benefits program that makes additional weeks of unemployment benefits available in times of high unemployment.

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