The legal age to start work in Washington is 14, but restrictions may limit opportunities for early teens.

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Can your 15-year-old get a job this summer? The answer is: maybe.

Kids under 16 can work in offices, grocery stores, retail stores, restaurants and movie theaters, says Josie Bryan, a child labor specialist with the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I).

While the legal age to start work in Washington is 14, even the under-14 set can get regular employment with a superior court judge’s permission. For actors or performers in theater, film or modeling, variances are also available for kids 17 and under.

However, if a worker is younger than 16, employers can pay him or her 85 percent of the adult minimum wage.

L&I doesn’t regulate some jobs, Bryan says, such as baby-sitting, pet-sitting, chores or helping a neighbor with yard work — essentially, duties that are performed in a private home. “We call that casual labor,” Bryan says.

In agriculture, 12- and 13-year-olds can only work during non-school months, hand-harvesting berries, bulbs, cucumbers and spinach. If a farmer hires his or her son or daughter, they’re exempt from child labor regulations, Bryan notes, but this exception only pertains to agricultural work.

Special rules around hours and working conditions are enforced for this age group; for example, 14- and 15-year olds can only work up to 16 hours a week during the school year, and need to clock out by 7 p.m. during the school year, 9 p.m. during summer.

The employer can request variances for additional hours for a youth to work, but only under special circumstances or “good cause,” Bryan says, such as working to save money for college or a dropout needing more hours to support themselves.

If a student is home-schooled or taking online classes, the employer still needs to get a variance from L&I to work more hours than those allowed or during regular school hours.

There’s a long list of things kids under 16 can’t do, such as driving a car or operating power saws. Some hazardous cleaning chemicals are off-limits, Bryan points out, and so is performing work that’s off the ground.
Many larger corporations set 16 as a minimum hire age, including theater chains and fast-food restaurants, so actually securing a job may be challenging.

As a starting point, the City of Seattle’s youth employment programs offer paid summer career training, service opportunities and employment-skills preparation to a wide variety of ages.

Seattle Parks and Recreation has pre-employment and leadership programs that support young people in exploring their skills and interests, developing their work ethic and interacting with positive adult role models, says Rachel Schulkin, Seattle Parks and Recreation’s communications manager.

“Teens want to be productive and earn money during the summer months. For 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds, it is especially difficult to find opportunities that are fun, meaningful and pay,” says Schulkin.

Teens who successfully complete the program receive a stipend and/or community service hours.

As a parent, you’ll likely be driving your 14-year-old to that office filing position. You will also need to sign a special authorization form provided by the employer, or found at the Washington L&I website. But other than this, how involved should parents be?

“It’s important for parents to ask teens questions when they get a job,” Bryan says, because safety is paramount. “When teens come home from the first day at work, ask about the tasks.”

For example, what the teen should do if an injury happens or if they’ve received training for their assigned work.

“The young aren’t always going to ask questions,” she says. When it’s a first job, a teen may be trying to impress an employer or may not feel confident enough to clear up confusion around pay, hours or safety concerns, Bryan adds.

If parents feel like something is seriously amiss or the employer is violating laws regarding their teen’s safety, they may wish to consult the Washington L&I website or call in a complaint, she notes.

After all, these challenges and skills are part of work life — and growing up.