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A Work in Progress

Some of the hardest-working people in Silicon Valley aren't the VCs and entrepreneurs--they're the kids, man

By Genevieve Roja

Photography by George Sakkestad

TUCKED BEHIND pleats of bangs, Kristen's* under-eye bags--bluish ripples of skin--swallow her tiny brown eyes. It is those eyes that meet mine in a San Jose middle school classroom during Kristen's lunch hour. She sees me and plops down her lunch tray and lets out a sigh that reverberates with annoyance. She inspects the Mother's circus animal crackers and opens a small carton of nonfat milk and a bag of chips. The rest of the 13-year-old's facial features--her nose and lips--are delicate and petite, without any trace of adolescent acne or the paint-by-numbers makeup that some of the girls her age wear. I do a quick study of her apparel: black puffy jacket over a ribbed gray sweater and grayish-black handkerchief halter, black jeans and black shoes. Her fellow lunchtime detainees wonder what warrants a question-and-answer session with a stranger when the rest of them are catching up on reading and finishing makeup exams. They sass her and she sasses back, dismissing them with a roll of her eyes. Not The Loner or The Popular Girl, I discover later that Kristen is someone else--The One With the Job That Ate Her Life.

A day earlier, Kristen and I speak briefly on the telephone. She tells me, like, she's really busy. The eighth-grader says she sees a school counselor and takes care of her mother, who can't work because of a disability. Kristen works practically every weeknight, on weekends, and even leaves school early so she can make it to work before her shift starts. I ask how long she has been working in general.

"Does a paper route count?"

It counts.

"I was 8 or 9," she says. "My grandma is 64 and she had Alzheimer's. I used to take care of her when I was small--cook for her, help her take her medicine."

I inspect Kristen's face as she munches away on her chips. I think that she's so young, that she's the best Kewpie-doll-faced, 13-year-old liar I've ever encountered. But why lie? I inquire how a girl her age lands a job at a concessions stand at the Compaq Arena in San Jose. Her uncle worked there, she says, and he got her the application and the job.

"I look older than I am," Kristen says. "They say I passed, that I looked a certain age."

Her uncle, the boss who interviewed her and the one who is now her superior, knew her age and let her work, she says. Her co-workers know her real age too. But Kristen's managed to hide her age from the corporate human resource people at her employer--a big name in the Tex-Mex food industry who cuts her a check bimonthly. When asked to verify Kristen's age, a payroll clerk at corporate headquarters said that she "did not know." The clerk, however, validated that Kristen began work at the arena on November 22, 2000, and according to their records is still employed there as a cashier. The clerk also said that Kristen works on-call.

Kristen has not obtained a work permit from school officials--a requirement for all minors who work--although she claims she has permission from one to work. Her schedule runs something like this: Get to school before classes start at 8:06am, leave school at 2:16pm and walk home. At 3:30pm, get a ride to the arena from her stepfather or uncle. Arrive at the arena by 4pm. Once there, start cooking food, arranging cups, putting out the money. Get off work at 10pm, sometimes 11 or 11:30pm.

She says she works every Sharks home game, every music concert, every ice event, including Barney on Ice or Sesame Street on Ice, whether it is a school night or not.

We agree to meet the following day. After confirming our meeting, but before we say goodbye and hang up, she asks, "I'm not going to get in trouble, am I?"


Kids' Rules: Today's child labor laws remain poorly enforced.


The Trouble With Kristen

UNDER CALIFORNIA'S child labor laws, Kristen is technically in trouble. At 13, she isn't supposed to make burritos and nachos, fry taquitos and prepare the beans, rice and chicken. Her employers are getting a bargain-basement deal out of her, considering her title is officially "cashier" and under California law she's not even old enough for that.

California's law implicitly states that no child under 14 years old may be employed unless that job is lawn care or yard work, baby-sitting, farmwork or performing in the radio, television, movie or theatrical industries. In the latter case, the state's labor commissioner must issue a permit. Before starting work at the arena in November, Kristen worked at a family friend's vendor space at the Berryessa Flea Market 20 hours every Saturday and Sunday, for which she was paid $90.

By working, she supports a family that relies on her income. Her mother is bipolar and cannot work, so she receives financial assistance--about $690 a month--but Kristen isn't certain where the money comes from, only that it's not enough.

"She's sick," Kristen says of her mother. "She's always in her room asleep and I lay by her."

Kristen's stepdad recently learned that he couldn't work when his hands and feet stiffened. There were tests, Kristen says. It was diabetes. So he got financial assistance too and became a stay-at-home parent without a job. Sometimes Kristen visits her biological father in Modesto. Her 15-year-old sister, who resides with her boyfriend's parents, doesn't work or contribute toward the family's income.

"She can't even take care of herself yet," says Kristen, who precedes the statement with an attitude-laden "Pshh."

It may be the attitude of a working girl. Kristen makes $7 an hour working 30 hours a week. (The payroll clerk at the corporate office of Kristen's employer says that on-call employees who work at the arena work a maximum of 24 hours a week.) Her salary goes toward her family's living expenses which she estimates as $1,000 for rent, and another $1,000 for bills and groceries. The rest that isn't covered by her mother and stepfather's disability checks Kristen makes up with the money she earns.

"I never had a childhood," she says in a brisk tone, as she pushes aside her bangs for better visibility.

It is likely that there are more Kristens in Silicon Valley, whose childhoods are lost to work obligations. Even with the recent economic downturn, Silicon Valley is still one of the most expensive places in America to live, and it's one of the hardest places to stay afloat financially. In most families the situation is not as extreme as Kristen's, but teenagers are supplementing their parents' incomes by going to work part time. They use their earnings to pay for things that less-strapped parents would pay for, such as school clothes, school supplies and meals.

There is little that chronicles the plight of teenagers who work in Silicon Valley. While many of the county's social service agencies release statistics and in-depth reports on children and teens, little of the information and research is devoted to children and teens who work. There has yet to be a definitive study on those under 18 who work specifically in Silicon Valley.

Youth employment shows no signs of slowing. In fact, Darlene Adkins, of the Child Labor Coalition, a child labor law watchdog network based in Washington, D.C., said in a 1998 speech that teens were twice as likely to work in 1990 as they were in 1950 because of the "growth of the service sector after World War II, the rise of the fast-food industry in the 1960s and 1970s, and an increase in the number of females entering the workforce." Earlier this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 2,350,000 16- and 17-year-olds nationwide were employed as of January 2001. There might have been millions more added to that number had the BLS surveyed teens younger than 16, a practice they do not routinely utilize. Although many teens say they're having fun and getting to meet different people every day, as Kristen tells me, work is having many adverse effects.

Kids are arriving late to school, falling asleep in class, falling behind in school, making up more tests and aggravating administrators and teachers. Many working teens admit they have been injured on the job or turned in incomplete homework because they worked a surplus of hours that their superiors demanded. Some who began working at a young age--some as young as 10 years old--weren't supposed to be working at all.

And many of them, because of their lack of maturity and their dependency on their jobs, don't know how to tell an employer no.

Teens Working
Working Knowledge: In the interest of having kids maintain good grades and good health, the Child Labor Coalition recommends a cap of 15 hours per week for 14- and 15-year-olds and a 20-hour cap for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Surveying the Damage

ONE FRIDAY afternoon this semester, I administered a 23-question survey to junior and senior students taught by English teacher Michael Ándres at Willow Glen High, a school in the San Jose Unified School District that is 52 percent Hispanic and 39 percent white. Of the 103 students polled in the survey, 50 percent said they were currently working.

Of those students, the majority said they worked 20-hour workweeks in service industry-type jobs that paid $8 an hour, above California's $6.25 minimum wage and the $5.15 federal minimum wage. In fact, the higher hourly rate isn't unusual in a region where competitive pay is the norm, says Tom Means, an economics professor at San Jose State University. He also says that there are companies in Silicon Valley bidding a lot more than the minimum wage to attract teenagers. Some In-N-Out Burgers and Home Depots, for example, start teens at $9, he says.

"Part of that is reflected in how expensive it is to live here," says Means, whose two teenage sons work.

What was surprising in the survey was that 20 percent of teens currently working said they give a portion of their income to their parents. Another 60 percent of working teens said they use their own money to buy basic things such as clothes or school lunches--necessities that their parents would normally pay for if they could.

Means agreed with that fact, adding that most parents reasoned that their teenagers would work to pay for any added "extras," such as newer clothes or concert tickets, but few keep track of what their teens spend on the basics.

John Neal, a Willow Glen High junior, said in his survey that he began working because he wanted extra money and "because it's expensive being a teenager in Silicon Valley." I ask him later what he means and he responds by launching into a laundry list of expenses. He says his junior prom is coming up, which means he will spend more than $200 on the prom bids, tuxedo rental, dinner and pictures. The rest of his expenses on nonprom nights usually goes toward eating, namely school lunches.

"Nothing is really cheap anymore," Neal points out.

Before quitting his job recently because his grades were faltering, he earned money by catching a city bus or hitching a ride with his parents to Chuck E. Cheese. As a waiter, Neal made minimum wage. On each paycheck, he gave his parents about $100 and they in turn gave him money for material items, but it was not an allowance. Neal gave the money to his parents to "help out" with the phone and cable bills. He says they didn't ask him to contribute, he just did.

"When I need money, I just ask [my parents]," says Neal, who is looking for another job now that his grades have improved slightly. "Besides that, I usually have money in my pocket from my job."

One 18-year-old who would not give his name said in his survey that he had been working 30 hours a week for the past six months on weekends and weekday evenings. A minimum wage earner, the student said he gave money to his parents. His grades, however, deteriorated. Another student, who is working at a local tennis and racquet club, said his grades have gone down since he began working there, but decided to work to have "money in my pocket and to help my mom with bills."

Kristen, once a model student earning straight As at her former Modesto school before moving to San Jose at the beginning of this academic year, is now pulling in Bs and Cs. Sometimes Kristen asks her teacher if she may leave a few minutes early, maybe more, so she doesn't miss the start of her shift. Her teacher, who sympathizes with her and knows her situation, lets her, even though this is the same girl who asks for zeroes in lieu of taking tests, does homework during class time and ignores book report assignments. She is the same one who has no friends, and the friends that she has, she can't keep.

"I'm losing my best friend 'cause I'm always tired," Kristen says. "I'm tired all the time."

Willow Glen High parent Sue Araballo let her son James work because he wanted to, and thought that by working, he would be more responsible.

"He likes working," says Sue, who takes James' paychecks and deposits them into a savings account. "He likes the extra money. But it's the same with everything else he's involved with. His academics come first."

The Problems of Prioritizing

BESIDES NOT always recognizing that school is a bigger priority than work is, teenagers are facing more work-related problems. Kids who work late are late for school, doze off in class, post poor attendance records and declining grades. According to studies by the National Research Council and professors at Temple University, the University of Minnesota and Stanford University, 16- and 17-year-olds who worked more than 20 hours a week didn't devote enough time to homework and didn't engage in sports or extracurricular activities. One study concluded that 16- and 17-year-olds who work long hours are also more susceptible to alcohol consumption. The Child Labor Coalition recommends a cap of 15 hours per week for 14- and 15-year-olds, and a 20-hour cap for 16- and 17-year-olds. Hours that go beyond that, Adkins says, just aren't healthy. A teen who works 20 hours and goes to school full time is already investing 60 hours a week.

"We're asking young people to juggle school and juggle a really heavy workload," she says. "And kids are getting burnt out."

"Work can be the best thing that ever happened to a kid," says Willow Glen High School administrator Carmen Mahood. "But the more they do in life, the more they procrastinate. So if they want to keep their job, then they have to get their life more organized. Work allows a student to be more self-disciplined; it can be a very maturing thing."

But employers must acknowledge a teenager's limitations.

"Young people are not little adults," Adkins says. "Employers have a special responsibility in hiring these children to ensure their safety. Their safety is number one. I don't think that can be stressed too much."

Teens Working
Whole Kids: The majority of working students surveyed by Metro, like Kara Butler, above, said they were happy with their jobs and worked manageable 20-hour workweeks in service industry-type jobs.

Power Struggle

TEACHERS AND administrators feel powerless when it comes to their working students. Do they play benevolent friend or fierce educator? To make matters worse, there are few resources for students, teachers and administrators. There are plenty of high school counselors but few that specialize in youth employment, in addition to dispensing advice on college applications or SATs. Put simply, there is no priority for establishing resources, says Mike Carr, director of special education for San Jose Unified. There are more important problems, such as graduating kids on time and without failure.

Marcia Newey, administrator of public services for SJUSD, says that there is a way for kids to talk about their problems stemming from work.

"If a student voices a concern and the teacher thinks it needs to be looked at further, they may refer that child to a school counselor or school administrator if they feel what they offer isn't enough," Newey explains. "And teachers pretty much know where to go to ask questions. It's part of their training, and the school principal would let them know what kind of problem there is."

Mike Ándres, the Willow Glen High English teacher, is seeing firsthand how these working kids are coping, and the result is less than stellar.

"Kids are working harder than they're supposed to be ... and their grades aren't where they're supposed to be," he says.

So that all their students are up to par academically, administrators at Willow Glen High render several restrictions. Every six weeks, students receive a progress report, in which school officials determine if a student can continue working based on their academic performance. If a student has two Fs on their transcript, school officials pull their work permit. All of this is mentioned in the contract a student must sign with the school before commencing work. Sometimes, however, there are deep-seated problems, says Mahood.

"We find out they're working too much and they don't need to work, or we find out they have to work, and what's going on is that the family needs the money and has to sacrifice school for work. In that case, we make an exception."

She relates that she once made an exception for a member of the football team who had been working. When they noticed that his grades had slipped, they questioned him. His mother was having major surgery, he told them, and he and his brother were working full time on top of school to help pay for the procedure. So Mahood placed him and his brother in independent study, which allowed them to complete their assigned schoolwork from home and still continue working. The boys eventually returned to school.

"Work is always complicated," Mahood says. "But most kids work a few hours a week; it gives them running-around money, [money for] car insurance. It teaches them about bank accounts and it all balances out. Generally speaking, work is a good thing."

When a job turns awry and students are suffering--be it grades, homework or impacted social lives--there is some help. Because Willow Glen High is within San Jose Unified--which does not employ counselors for its schools--teachers and administrators are responsible for tracking kids before they fall.

"Occasionally, I'll have an email [that says], 'So-and-so is falling asleep in class, or falling behind on their homework,'" Mahood says. "And we'll step in."

If the circumstances reveal that the job situation is more serious, Willow Glen High officials turn to counselors from the YWCA whom the school has contracted through a grant.

"We help kids make the decisions that make them grow the best," Mahood says.

Hazards Ahead

THERE ARE other issues for working teens more pressing than maintaining an academic edge. Many working teenagers across the country face health and safety hazards. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), about 70 teens die yearly from work injuries in the United States and another 70,000 are hurt seriously enough to land them in hospital emergency rooms. James Araballo, who usually worked the register and not the grill at Big Dog's on Foxworthy Avenue in San Jose, once suffered a mild burn.

"It was in the morning," he says. "I was cooking eggs, helping my boss, and I turned around and my hand hit the burner and it was on. I got burned a little bit."

He ran water over his hand and returned to work. Like James, Kristen also burned her hand at work, but instead of using water to quell the pain, she rubbed aloe vera at the advice of her boss. It was the wrong advice; most burns should be treated by running water over the burn for at least 20 minutes.

Just as serious are tales from students about hours they worked beyond those scheduled. One time, says one 18-year-old Willow Glen High student, he stayed at work until 3am on a weekday evening, even though he had to get up for school in the morning.

Kristen, on the other hand, likes the extra hours.

"When I have days off, I ask to work to get more money," she says.

John Corona had fewer options. His boss demanded he work last New Year's Eve, which would have been fine had Corona received overtime pay. He never got it.

"It's a byproduct of the employment situation [in Silicon Valley]," Mahood says. "You get these responsible kids, and you get them to work at Longs Drugs 'til two in the morning. This kid falls apart, they can't sleep, and they say they have to pay for their car insurance or phone bills. We've had a couple of situations where we've needed to protect the kids."

Sometimes Mahood has to contact the teen's employer because the student has worked an excess of hours.

"We just pulled the kids from their jobs," Mahood says.

And rightfully so. Adkins says that the reason many working teens work a surplus is because the law allows it.

"A lot of this is not illegal," says Adkins, a coordinator for the Child Labor Coalition and the vice president of the National Consumer League. "You're appealing to an employer's good will that they'll stay on the ball. It's why we'd like to see child labor laws restricted, because it [working too many hours] puts young people in an awkward situation. They're afraid of losing their jobs."

Adkins, who says she receives about 10 weekly emails from teens providing scenarios in which their bosses demand more hours, tells them to be direct.

"Talk to your employer," she says, "or have your parent intervene."

One of the more disturbing issues that has become incidental in employing youth is the rise of occupational violent crimes. Many teenagers work service industry jobs, in sandwich and yogurt shops, guarding cash registers until late at night and closing shop alone.

"All these things that are so attractive to criminals," Adkins says.

Case in point: Last year on Valentine's Day, two high school sophomores, Nicholas Kunselman, 15, and Stephanie Hart, 16, were shot to death inside a Subway deli. Kunselman had worked only one month at the store before he was allowed to close alone. Hart, his girlfriend, had come to pick him up after his shift ended. A fellow Subway employee found the bodies after she had driven past the store and noticed that the light inside was still on. Police suspected the motive had been robbery, although nothing was taken from the register. Many teens are led to believe that nothing bad can happen while working, but in fact, occupational violent crime consistently ranks among the top three causes for death among minors.

"That's something that people don't focus on," Adkins says. "A teenager's supervisor is what, 18 or 17?"

There is little hope for most overworked, exploited teens. Child labor law enforcement officers check in at businesses, but only when there is a complaint, a work injury or death. The U.S. General Accounting Office--an investigative arm of Congress that examines such violations, among its other tasks--estimates that a business could expect to be investigated once every 80 years, based on the number of officers employed in the early 1990s, when the information was released.

"There's not the funding there to have enough personnel to be able to really have adequate oversight of all the workplaces in a given state," Adkins says.

Teens Working
Pizza My Growth: Many valley employers, such as Pizza My Heart in Willow Glen, give teen workers such as Andrea Rojas their first experience at a job, and do not permit them to work late on school nights.

Gone But Not Forgotten

NOT EVERY working teenager is like Kristen. Hers is an extreme case, an example of some of the worst things that can happen to kids when they lead adult lives in their adolescence. Child advocates need only look at her case to argue that children need to be able to focus on their personal development, not job employment.

The last time I saw Kristen, we had established a special code for her pager so she'd know I was the one paging her. She stopped returning my calls. Maybe she sensed I would get her in trouble and she'd be removed from her home by Child Protective Services, like one of her friends. After several failed attempts to page her, one of her teachers, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells me that Kristen has some more problems. At the arena for a Sharks game in early March, Kristen's teacher saw Kristen at work, even though she was not scheduled to work that night.

"She said basically, 'I don't feel good,'" recalls Kristen's teacher. "She said she'd come visit me at my seat."

Later that evening, while still at work, Kristin reportedly took a ballpoint pen and rammed it into one of her arms.

Kristen was taken to Valley Medical Center and then to a psychiatric clinic in Fremont for three days of observation. She told her teacher, who visited her at the psychiatric clinic and confirms Kristen's pen episode, that she purposely cut herself because she was "pissed." Her mother and stepfather did not visit her in the hospital.

No one from Kristen's work is able to confirm the incident. The manager who hired Kristen has moved to Bakersfield and the current manager has only held the position for a month. He has no record of Kristen working under him. When I ask the payroll clerk from the corporate office if she has seen Kristen working at the arena, she says she doesn't know. Rarely does she physically check in on the company's employees, she says.

A few weeks before this story goes to print, I learn that Kristen's biological father removed her from the clinic and took her to another community in Northern California to live with him. I page her again, leaving voicemail messages urging her to call me, but she does not return my call.

* Kristen is a pseudonym.

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From the May 17-23, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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