Undocumented Queens High School Kids Work Factory Jobs to Pay the Bills

Students who work overnight jobs sleep for just a few hours before heading into classes at a Queens high school. New York Labor Law says 14-15 year olds in most industries can work only from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Photo: Aleksandra Konstantinovic

Waves of heat flooded the factory floor of an industrial kosher bakery in Queens as workers opened and closed the doors. Commercial mixers whirled a thick dough that would soon be braided into challah rolls and baked to a golden brown. In the midst of this noise and heat, Luis, a 17-year-old high school student, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, began his shift. It was a weeknight, 3 a.m., and the El Salvadoran teen was supposed to be in class in just five hours.

He poured flour, salt and yeast into the mixers, and rolled out the finished dough. The flattened product he’d hang on racks, where other workers – mostly Central American immigrants like himself – would carry it to the ovens to bake.

Luis is undocumented, having fled El Salvador almost two years ago. He spent six nights a week in Zomick’s Kosher Bakery working from 9 at night to 5 in the morning making approximately $8 per hour – under the state minimum wage of $9. The young man typically went to bed immediately after getting home from school at 3 p.m., waking up in time to have dinner and go to work. Most mornings, he said, he could still make it to school on time after resting his eyes for another hour. But he was often too tired to focus on schoolwork.

“It’s heavy work. It was too much on me,” said Luis, speaking through a translator, his teacher at Queens High School for Information, Research and Technology. He ended up leaving the job after two months to find work without overnight hours.

However, at the Far Rockaway Queens public high school, dozens of other students work, or have worked at the same bakery, often during these long, overnight shifts.  Approximately 25 percent of the student population of QIRT is composed of recent immigrants from Central America – unaccompanied minors who crossed the border in record numbers in  2014. Many of these students have now been in the country for the two years necessary to obtain legal status – but new immigrants arrive at QIRT weekly. This population of students is most likely to take overnight and underpaid jobs.

It’s a familiar situation for English teacher Joan Mazur. She estimates that about a quarter of her students, some as young as 15, work essentially full-time jobs of 48 hours a week while attending high school. In addition to the bakery, some students are employed in factories throughout the neighborhood, while others work in local grocery stores and restaurants.

New York state labor laws regulate how many hours persons under 18 years of age can work. During the school year, 14- and 15-year-olds can work three hours per day on school days and eight hours per day on other days. Their 16- and 17-year-old counterparts can work four hours per day Monday to Thursday, and eight hours per day on weekends and holidays.

Additionally, the younger group can only work hours between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., while older teenagers can work from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The restrictions are relaxed when school isn’t in session, or if a teenager has dropped out of school.

Although students like Luis work outside of the allowed hours, the few teachers who know about these jobs hesitate to report the businesses for a violation of the labor code. They fear it could lead to the kids losing their homes due to the lost income. The students also become vulnerable to deportation raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on their 18th birthdays. Before then, they’re protected under a law passed in 2008 – the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act – which guarantees court dates for underage immigrants without family in the United States, who aren’t from Mexico or Canada.

The bureaucratic and complex nature of the system leaves teachers unsure of how to help their working students.

“We don’t tell them to quit,” Spanish teacher Jomarie Figueroa said. “But we’ll tell their parents that they need to be in school.”

The students have told Mazur and Figueroa that they need the money to help their parents pay rent and bills. Some also still owe money to the coyotajes who arranged for them to cross the border. The students, some unaccompanied, others with their families, were fleeing violence in their home countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. Figueroa said that these long, perilous journeys have left families in up to $20,000 worth of debt per person. And typical of a teenager, Luis added he wants to save his own money for a cell phone.

Immigration expert and attorney Allan Wernick said he hasn’t heard of this exact situation, but isn’t surprised that there are undocumented young people working overnight. It’s particularly difficult to convince them not to work when the money is needed.

“Unless there’s a financial remedy or they get some benefit out of it, what’s the point of suing?” he said. “Yes, they have a right to recovery, but not a right to the job.”

It might be possible for some young workers to obtain a U visa, which guarantees protection for victims of certain crimes. These qualifying criminal activities are mostly related to trafficking and include sex crimes, fraud and violence.

These overnight jobs cause problems at the school, and make the students tired and unprepared in class, Mazur said. Some will leave classes early or stop attending altogether in order to accommodate their work — a problem at a school where only 55 percent of students graduate in four years. It’s particularly concerning for students who may have come to the school from other countries with as little as a 4th grade education. Missing additional classes now means they fall further and further behind. Some struggle to complete worksheets designed for much younger children, which ask them to identify cartoon drawings of cats and houses by their English names. Mazur has observed that they feel dejected when they fail to grasp English. Other students believe their jobs are simply more important than coming to class, and are usually forthright about why they were late or absent.

During one lesson, Mazur wrote the names of her students’ home countries – El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala– and asked for the capital cities. Her students shouted out the answers as Mazur wove into the lesson a recent soccer game between Honduras and El Salvador that had been popular entertainment in the class. But despite the clamor, some students had their heads in their arms, too tired to focus.

Mazur sees students who make a tremendous effort to juggle both work and classes.

“The reality is, the kids who are most motivated to work like that are also the ones most interested in learning,” Mazur said.

QIRT’s attendance rates are approximately 85 percent school-wide, according to business manager Parris Morris, which is just under the borough average of 91 percent. That number doesn’t change much for students who have jobs.

“Absences here aren’t usually because of work,” Morris said. “Students typically miss school because they think they can get away with it.”

Phone calls and home visits can motivate students to attend, she added. But Mazur sees that even when they do attend, students with jobs aren’t as engaged.

“It’s not so much the attendance, it’s when they get here, their heads are on their desks,” Mazur said.

Jackie, a student who works at the same bakery where Luis just quit, packs baked challah from late afternoon to approximately 1 a.m. – about 48 hours each week. She said she’s paid $9 per hour, and began working when she was just 15. Her name has also been changed due to fears about her job and her immigration status.

Both Jackie and Luis said everyone in their family has a job. Jackie, who came from Honduras last year, is still going to court every month or so as part of the process that she hopes will grant her citizenship papers. She lives with her mother, as well as two cousins. Their collective income pays rent on an apartment in Far Rockaway. Luis immigrated from El Salvador and has been in the country for two years. He also contributes to the household income, but with his family more established, he’s able to spend his earnings on clothes and electronics. He said he also likes working because it provides some independence.

“It’s all about money,” Figueroa said, marking a student absent for the third time that week.

Zomick’s Kosher Bakery was the subject of a lawsuit filed last year that claimed it had paid the three adult plaintiffs less than minimum wage. In Isabel Rabnales Palacios’ time working at Zomick’s, the lawsuit claims, she was paid $7.25 per hour. She worked over 72 hours every week, or approximately 12 hours per day for six days, as a baker like Luis, and was never paid for the overtime. A second plaintiff, Martha Rabnales Palacios also worked 72 hours each week as a cookie packer, taking home $6.25 per hour.

Lawyers for the owners of the bakery denied each claim. Where the plaintiffs alleged that their employer didn’t provide them with wage statements, the bakery owners asserted “a lack of willfulness or intent to violate the Fair Labor Standards Act or New York Labor Law as a defense to any claim by plaintiffs for liquidated damages.”

The response to the complaint further added that if the defendants failed to pay the plaintiffs appropriately, the activities the plaintiffs performed did not count as payable work under the existing laws. The lawsuit, filed in March of last year, was dismissed in January 2016.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not return multiple requests for comment, while lawyers for the defense declined to discuss the case, saying the resolution was confidential. However, attorney Aaron Solomon of Kaufman, Dolowich and Voluck, who represented the bakery during the lawsuit did state that all of Zomick’s employees are of legal age.

Furthermore, Solomon stated that Zomick’s complies with the requirements of the Immigration Reform and Control Act by requiring employees to provide documentation that they are authorized to work in the United States.

Mazur believes her working students receive checks made out to cash, and take them to check cashing stores. Figueroa has asked them whether it’s worth it to make so little, to pay for transportation to and from work and then also pay a fee to get the cash. A solution to the truancy and the overnight jobs, she speculated, might be to make school attendance a requirement for obtaining citizenship papers.  She’s seen many of her students leave school for work once they know their place in the country is secure.

“I was horrified,” Mazur said, referring to when she began hearing about her students’ jobs. “Nobody that young should be working like that because they feel like they have to.”


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