A Young People’s Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

Young people are at a stage in their lives when many are seeking new experiences and opportunities, looking for jobs that will sustain themselves and their families, and considering possible career paths. Young people hold so much potential and promise. They provide talent, energy, ideas, and effort that help fuel our economy. Good jobs—that pay well, offer generous benefits, and allow for flexible schedules—create opportunities for professional growth, promote young people’s physical and mental health, and help set them on an upward path of economic mobility.

With a good job, young people can establish a trajectory toward a sustainable livelihood. As a CARES Ambassador in New York explains, “it would mean the absolute world to me to have a job that pays a livable wage, offers paid time off, flexibility, accommodations, and other protections and standards. This would all mean that I get to live comfortably. I wouldn’t have to choose between my mental health and my job because they’d be able to accommodate me. I wouldn’t have to choose which bill I can go without paying because I’d be stable enough to make sure that they’re all paid.”

Yet as young people set out to pursue their careers, they often find that positions open to them are limited—with low wages, unpredictable hours, few benefits or protections, and little potential for growth. Despite recent wage growth, especially among the lowest-paid workers, it is still the case that young people’s labor is often exploited and their contributions undervalued.

Limited opportunity and job security are a direct product of policy choices that allow employers to exploit the labor of workers—especially young workers. Today, the federal minimum wage is at its lowest level in inflation adjusted terms since 1956, at $7.25 an hour. Young people are more likely to be paid the federal minimum wage: they represent 20 percent of the hourly wage workforce, but 45 percent of those paid the federal minimum wage or less. Black workers, and Black women in particular, Latinx/e women, and White women are overrepresented among young people who are paid the federal minimum wage. In addition, under federal law, young people and people with disabilities can in some cases be paid a subminimum wage—less than $7.25 an hour. It is nearly impossible to live on such low wages; according to the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator, a single adult without children cannot achieve an adequate standard of living with a wage of less than $15 an hour.

In addition to being paid low wages, young people are also more likely to be “underemployed”—working fewer hours than they would like to be working—and to be working in jobs where schedules routinely change with limited notice and have higher levels of employee turnover. Young people, especially young people of color, are  also more likely to work in the gig economy. Although jobs in the gig economy offer flexibility, they typically lack protections, security, stability, and benefits. Studies show that many gig workers experience poor working conditions and low pay; one in seven earn less than the federal minimum wage, and one in four earn less than the applicable state minimum wage.

Young people aging out of foster care often experience more difficulty in the labor market than their peers. Over half of young people aging out of foster care, between the ages of 17 and 21, are unemployed. Those that are employed have less stable employment, work fewer hours, and report 50 percent lower earnings than their peers who did not spend time in foster care.

As these data show, the current labor market is extremely volatile for young people. In response, we are proposing the creation of a new set of protections to ensure work can provide stability and security for young people. In addition, policies are also needed to help prepare young people for better jobs, to help them access better jobs, and to enable them to organize to improve the quality of their jobs.

A newly established Young People’s Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) would strengthen workforce protections that matter to young people, including the following:

  • ENSURES PROTECTIONS FOR PART-TIME WORKERS through fair scheduling regulations, hiring preferences for full-time openings, and eligibility for employer retirement plans. Employers with more than 15 employees should be required to provide schedules at least two weeks in advance to both full-time and part-time workers. All employers should also offer available hours to current part-time employees before hiring new employees or subcontractors and should make retirement plans available to part-time employees who work at least 500 hours for two consecutive years.
  • ENSURES PROTECTIONS FOR GIG WORKERS. Many gig workers are classified, often incorrectly, as independent contractors rather than employees, and as a result, denied a wide range of protections and benefits: they are not covered by federal or state wage and hour, anti-discrimination, health and safety, or other worker protection laws; they are not eligible for employer-sponsored health insurance and retirement plans, and do not qualify for paid sick or family leave or unemployment insurance. To protect young people working in the gig economy, the Young People’s FLSA will (1) strengthen enforcement against misclassification to ensure workers are classified correctly and receive the benefits they are already entitled to under existing law and (2) change the classification tests so that more workers qualify in the first place. The Federal Trade Commission must also take a proactive role by investigating gig platforms, developing substantive rules for gig platforms, and requiring broader protections for gig workers.
  • ENSURES FEDERAL PAID LEAVE (FAMILY, MEDICAL, SICK) THAT COVERS ALL FULL- , PART-TIME, AND CONTRACT WORKERS. Congress must establish paid family, medical, and sick leave, so that all workers can take the time they need to care for themselves and loved ones without worrying about their family’s economic security.
  • ELIMINATES SUBMINIMUM WAGES, INCREASES THE FEDERAL MINIMUM WAGE, AND ESTABLISHES LOCAL LIVABLE WAGE SUPPLEMENTS TO ENSURE WORKERS CAN MEET THE COST OF LIVING. The Young People’s FLSA will eliminate sub-minimum wages for young adults, people with disabilities, and tipped workers; establish a federal minimum wage “floor” of $15 per hour; and, in areas with higher than average cost of living, automatically adjust the minimum wage upwards to ensure the minimum wage enables workers to afford necessities.
  • INCREASES FUNDING FOR ENFORCEMENT, TO CRACK DOWN ON WAGE THEFT AND OTHER VIOLATIONS of the act. In a survey of the 10 most populous U.S. states, 2.4 million workers were found to have lost $8 billion annually to minimum wage violations—this translates to nearly a quarter of their earned wages. The Young People’s FLSA will include enforcement mechanisms and target labor exploitation, wage theft, and other violations.

Read the full policy agenda, A Policy Agenda for a Nation that CARES for Young Adults, here.