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State bill would require high schools to educate students on workers’ rights

And on role of unions in securing protections


Earlier this month, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law that requires public schools to create a “Workplace Readiness Week” whose purpose is to teach high school students about their rights as workers. Now, a New York legislator has introduced similar legislation to help young workers across the state.

Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas’ bill would establish Workplace Readiness Week in public high schools and charter schools each year starting on April 28. Schools would be required to teach 11th- and 12-graders about work-rights topics such as child-labor laws, wage and hour protections and the right to unionize.

González-Rojas said she was inspired by the bill introduced in California by Assembly Member Liz Ortega. “Many young people don’t have an understanding of workplace rules,” she told The Chief during a recent phone interview. “Our young people are starting their foundation in the workplace, so it’s important that they have an understanding of what exploitation looks like.”

She explained that informing teens of their rights on the job was especially important because injuries among young workers have been on the rise since the pandemic. In New York, child-labor violations increased 68 percent in 2022, the state Department of Labor reported. Last year, there were 464 such cases across the state, with the majority of violations related to wage underpayment, hours of work and prohibited employment. To raise awareness about child-labor laws, Governor Kathy Hochul announced the creation of a child labor task force in March.

“In a time when many families are struggling and young people are supplementing income for their families, I think this bill will provide them with a solid education about their rights,” González-Rojas said.

The bill, introduced Oct. 13, does not yet have cosponsors, but González-Rojas said she and her would start to build support for the legislation by the time the next legislative session starts in January.

Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations will create the curriculum for Workplace Readiness Week, although how the material is taught will be up to the discretion of schools, the Queens Assemblywoman explained.

Educators will teach students about local, state and federal laws pertaining to paid sick leave and paid family leave, prohibitions against misclassification of employees as independent contractors, unemployment insurance, and the historical role of labor unions in securing labor protections. 

Students will also learn about state apprenticeship and job training programs, such as the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which offered more than 100,000 job opportunities to young New Yorkers last summer.

González-Rojas pointed out that several states with Republican leaders have been scaling back on child-labor protections recently. In Iowa, for example, a law passed in May allows 16- and 17-year-olds to serve alcohol as long as their employer gets permission from their parents, and increases the number of hours workers under 16 can work on school days from four to six. In Arkansas, lawmakers in March passed a law eliminating permits that required employers to verify the ages of child workers.

“We want to trend in the opposite direction,” González-Rojas told The Chief. “We want New Yorkers to understand that New York is a union town.” 



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