Jack Slavsky is 20 years old and works the night shift at the Arby’s on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. At $17 an hour, he can’t afford to move out of the place he shares with his mom, or start planning for college.

“Right now, minimum wage doesn’t even support minimum living,” Slavsky told LAist. “If I tried to live on my wage, then I would maybe just be able to cover rent and nothing else. Not utilities, not food.”

Slavsky describes his working life as a “Sisyphus feeling” — constantly pushing a boulder uphill but not getting anywhere. And he’s not alone: Millions of young Californians are working but many face low pay, high rents, and other financial hardships.

Those are the conclusions of a new report from the UCLA Labor Center that examines the conditions of California’s more than 2 million young workers. The report is based on several datasets, including from the U.S. Census Bureau and the California Department of Education.

What the researchers found was stark: The majority of young people in the workforce made an average of $16.50 an hour in 2022, with disparities by race and gender showing up even in early careers.

The study’s authors connect employment during young adulthood to outcomes for young workers later in life.

“We think of [young workers] as working these service-level, entry-level jobs with the expectation that they’ll receive higher-paying jobs in the future. And it kind of just looks like that’s not the case anymore,” said Vivek Ramakrishnan, a PhD student at UCLA and lead author of the study. “All of these traditional pathways to receive stable, full-time employment are starting to kind of break down.”

Intensive hours for teenage workers

According to the UCLA Labor Center’s research, 15% of young workers in California between the ages of 16 and 18 worked full time. More than half of young people in the workforce in California work frontline jobs, with many in restaurants or retail. 

More than one fourth of high schoolers who were working were logging 20 hours a week or more.

“And we really think that’s an underestimate,” said Janna Shadduck-Hernández, project director at the UCLA Labor Center and co-author of the report. She attributed that to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “We had heard that there were a lot of students who weren’t returning to high school … that more young people were needing to enter the workforce and to work full time.”

Despite the hours that young workers are putting in, the study found that young people in the workforce are more likely to live in poverty and that nearly half of them are rent-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of income toward where they live.

The cost of housing looms large for 22-year-old Alan Vargas, who works as a TikTok content creator and lives with his parents in Corona.

“And they’re also still struggling,” Vargas told LAist. “And if they’re not able to survive, that seems to me like a bad omen that I have virtually no chance in the economy right now.”

Guadalupe Gonzalez recently graduated from UCLA and is back living with her parents in Moreno Valley while looking for work.

“A lot of my friends had struggles with mental health,” she said. “I think that having these stressors of ‘Will l be financially stable? Will I be able to help my family with rent this month? Will I be able to pay off this loan?’ is a big contributor to that.”

Unemployment and wage gap disparities

One of the study’s most glaring findings was that 19% of young Black workers in California are experiencing unemployment — compared to 9% of all young workers.

“[The numbers] are extremely sad, but not surprising, when you have a history as a country of Black workers being kind of placed at the bottom of the system,” said Ashley Clayton of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center. The center advocates for policy changes “that allow for Black workers to get a foot in the door.”

By gender, men tended to outearn women among every racial group except white respondents. The big disparity showed up among young Asian workers, where women were more likely to earn lower wages by nine percentage points.

Young Latinx women had the highest rate of low wage employment, closely followed by young Black women. According to the study, current trends show women of color are “more likely to earn low wages, even with age and experience” as they continue in their careers.

Policy change is one end goal of UCLA’s sweeping study, according to the researchers that put it together. The study also points to union membership as a clear path to better outcomes for young workers in California — who are currently working union jobs at much lower rates than their older counterparts.

18-year-old Ella Clark says those numbers are something her generation wants to change. She was 17 years old and working at a Northern California Starbucks when she helped lead an effort to unionize her workplace.

“This is your time to organize,” Clark told LAist. “The more people we have in our movement, the stronger we will be.”

What questions do you have about colleges and universities?

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez focuses on the stories of students trying to overcome academic and other challenges to stay in college — with the goal of creating a path to a better life.