(Permit)ssion Granted: Removing Barriers to Youth Employment in DC

Posted on February 21, 2020 | Marcia Huff, Young Women's Project

YWP youth creating vision boards during their weekly training session. These sessions inform the issues, like obtaining work permits, youth want to advocate for.

Every few weeks, the Weissberg Foundation features a story from one of our grantee partners to shine a light on their critical work. This week, we bring you a story from Young Women’s Project, a partner in our Reframing <Washington> Empowerment Fund.

Young Women’s Project (YWP) builds the leadership and power of young people so that they can transform DC institutions to expand rights and opportunities for DC youth. YWP programs guide youth through a process of personal transformation so they can become leaders in their peer groups, schools, families, and communities who are able to analyze problems, identify solutions, and advocate for change. YWP’s work engages under-resourced youth of color, ages 14-24, with a focus on teen women, youth in foster care, and youth experiencing homelessness.

Youth face many barriers to employment. In DC, obtaining work permits is unfortunately another obstacle. In 2016, 81% of DC youth ages 16-19 were unemployed. The issue is especially urgent for youth living in Wards 7 and 8 where nearly half of the families are living in poverty and the unemployment rates are double other parts of the city (in 2018, 9.6% in Ward 7 and 12.5% in Ward 8). For nearly 20 years YWP has been employing teenagers and obtaining work permits has always been a challenge for our young staff. Processes have been slow to change.

Under most circumstances, DC law requires youth 14-17 to obtain a work permit, yet DC lacks a streamlined process and a centralized location for students to do so. DC Public Schools (DCPS) students have an easier time than many youth because most DCPS high schools have a work permit issuer on staff. For youth attending charter or private schools, obtaining a work permit is a more complicated process. Many of these students must travel to a DCPS school to complete the process.

Youth experience and perspectives

This winter our youth staff surveyed their peers (DCPS, charter, and private school students) via a Google survey on their experiences obtaining work permits. A total of 119 youth completed the questionnaire, with 80 reporting that they successfully obtained a DC work permit. Half of the youth who obtained a work permit reported that they encountered an issue during the process, with 30% reporting that they had to travel to another school to have their work permit signed. Notably, all of the youth from charter schools had to travel to another school to complete the process.

One charter student shared that it took him a month to complete the process, which included multiple visits to two separate high schools. The process was disheartening for the student, who said, “All of this caused a delay in starting my job. This stopped me from making money. I do not think DCPS or anyone else is doing anything to address this problem.” Another charter student shared that it took her three trips to another school to complete the process because she kept missing the staff member in charge of work permits. She shared, “My final trip was on a day when my school had an early release. I arrived early and I was able to get the permit signed without an issue.” Other youth reported staff would not sign their permit on moral grounds. For example, a teacher refused to sign because “teens shouldn’t be having sex” and objected to YWP’s youth work as a Peer Health Educator, as their work includes distributing condoms, lubricant, and other sex materials. Some youth also reported that they were asked to bring proof of a recent physical to get a signature. Verification of physical fitness should only be required for youth seeking a theatrical work permit.

Advocating for youth-centered solutions

When YWP first started our advocacy, we were focused solely on making youth work permits more accessible, but the scope of our work quickly expanded as we learned that not only were there critical issues within the youth work permit system, but that DC lacked an agency or government entity overseeing employers of youth. DC law names the DC State Board of Education (SBOE) as the overseer of employers of minors, but in 2007 a significant portion of SBOE’s power was stripped and transferred to the Mayor. DCPS assumed the role of issuing permits but did not take on any of the other aspects of oversight. We do not know the consequences of this lack of accountability, but know it has real impacts on the city’s youth.

We are advocating for a sensible fix to the issue. First, we want the authority – under the DC Employment of Minors law, including work permits – to be transferred to DC Department of Employment Services (DOES). As the DC department of labor, they should oversee this critical aspect of employment. We also want the work permit process to be transitioned to an online system similar to that of our neighbors in Maryland.

We are working with the DC Council Committee on Education and the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development because the changes will require new legislation. DC youth have more than enough barriers to employment as is, and we need a system that makes work a more viable and accessible option for them.

We can’t do this work alone! We need the community to join our efforts by contacting city leaders to let them know that this is a critical issue that should be addressed this year. If you are interested in contributing to the work please send an email to marcia.huff@youngwomensproject.org.


Marcia Huff serves as The Young Women’s Project’s Deputy Director. Marcia is a committed youth advocate with over 15 years of experience in juvenile justice, child welfare, youth workforce development and youth leadership development. Marcia graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice, and she earned a Juris Doctorate from Howard University School of Law.