Stop 20-Something Abuse

How many times did you hear as a child, in a patronizing tone coming from an adult, “When you get older you will understand” or “You are so young, a newby, you’ll get it when you’re older,”? These are usually exclaimed right alongside the obligatory eye rolling and sighing. Well, put yourself in the shoes of 20-somethings nowadays and think how you would feel if you heard this time and time again on the job.

Recently I sat down with a friend of my sister’s named Paige, a stay-at-home mom who left a career as an employment/labor attorney. When she revealed her former profession, the cogs in my op-ed brain started to turn and my heart pounded. I sat up in my chair, just waiting for such a person to discuss something that had bothered me on and off for years.

I call it 20-something abuse.

My husband and I have raised three children, so we have watched them navigate the working world in high school, college, and beyond. We have also gotten to know their friends and acquaintances and have listened to their stories. There is a common thread that runs throughout. Young folks are taken advantage of time and time again because they do not have the platform for standing up for their rights in the employment world. Once they do finish college, most graduates end up with student loans averaging $27,000, and jobs are scarce. If they do land a job, employers know that there are five others lined up should they not do as they are told, regardless of labor laws that might be broken. So they perform, usually for less money than they are actually worth, and accept whatever working environment they are given. No complaints allowed.

There is the female retail worker in a downtown city who is told to stay and lock up late at night after taking the trash out to the dark back alley alone. When a snowstorm blows through the town, closing schools and prompting the male owner to leave to avoid slick roads, he tells the young female in the small economy car she can leave later in the day only after there are dwindling customers. When the toilet in the bathroom breaks, she is told to fix the toilet. When she is unable to do so, she is told she can walk across the street to another store but only when she has no customers. The toilet doesn’t get fixed for weeks. I know I couldn’t time my bodily functions that well. I suspect I would be the character from Bridesmaids who tries on the dress and reacts to bad food before she can make it across the street to a bathroom.

Then there is the female bartender who must lock up after her 5 a.m. shifts are over. She must then arrive back by 12 p.m. for the next shift. I’m not certain of any laws broken, but what a shitty thing to do to a young woman. I, for one, would not want to close a bar alone in a city much less return to work without a wink of beauty sleep. Not nice.

Another college graduate bought into an “independent contractor” position, being told she was lucky to be making such a large hourly wage ($13 per hour) at her age. She asked about taxes, and her employer told her she wouldn’t owe anything since she was only there for a partial year. After a while she became the de facto receptionist and was told to be in the office during the full office hours. When she arrived late, she found nasty sticky notes on her desk reminding her of the office hours. Lunches were never timely if not impossible since she was not allowed to leave unless someone else were there. Trouble was that the others took long lunches and left her there alone. After she left, she owed $1,000 in self-employment taxes. I don’t know if the owner didn’t understand the difference between an employee and independent contractor (cannot work office hours) or didn’t care. Either way, the behavior was abysmal.

One young lady told me about being sent to trade shows to stand in the company’s booth and hawk its wares. She was to arrive at 5 a.m. and stay until the group would eat together, usually between 7 and 10 p.m. Other meal times were no guarantee. Sitting was not allowed, nor was eating in public. Both were deemed unprofessional. She hid in toilet stalls to scarf down cereal bars to keep from getting sick – not exactly appetizing. When she got back to her regular job, she was not paid any extra for the weekend she lost to the trip, nor was she allowed to take days off to compensate for that time.

There are students in beauty schools who take on hair and nail clients and work for FREE for the job training experience. Trouble is, this day-in day-out work experience lasts for a year, and the students are allowed very little time off. Beauty students pay the school for the experience of working for paying customers.

There are also the students in college who take internships for “valuable” on-the-job training (running errands, making copies). They work regular hours and function as employees. Except that they are not paid a cent for their labor, not even minimum wage. These positions continue to proliferate even though statistically, students with paid internships do far better in the job market than other students, and students with unpaid internships do no better than students who graduated with no internship at all.

As a 50-something year old, I recognize that young folks don’t have the same choices I do. They are usually desperate for employment and insurance and cannot afford to make waves. So they put up with crappy jobs like the ones described above. Seeking an attorney who might demand labor laws is costlier and takes more time than 20-somethings can afford. Paige, my sister’s friend, shook her head at the examples I tossed to her, admitting that young people need a better voice in the work force. And yes, in the above examples, there were labor laws  broken. Mostly, though, the young people were just taken advantage of because the employers could. Finally, in spite of what some in the older generations may believe, all young people are not entitled. Some would simply like to be appreciated and respected. Our country should be applauding these young people for their efforts and supporting them if in no other way than by allowing them to borrow for college at rates similar to what our government gives financial institutions and paying them decent wages once they graduate. After all, they will be the employers of the future.

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