Kids on the Job

Published in the Houston Chronicle

Jackie Hackman steers her blue van into a north Houston Subdivision. The eight teen-age passengers start spilling out.Hackman hands each youngster a blue hamper filled with candy boxes and kitchen utensils to sell."Make me proud, guys," she shouts enthusiastically as the youth set out along tree-lined streets.

Hackman, a 35-year-old single mother of two, founded Texas Teens in Action in 1989. She contracts with teenagers 14-18 to sell candy and small housewares door-to-door for $ 5 each. Hackman is proud of her business and monitors her youthful sales workers to make sure they maintain passing grades in school. She dispenses motherly advice to her charges along with sales tips and encouragement. The business has a complaint-free record with the Better Business Bureau.

But many businesses that use children to sell products door-to-door are run less scrupulously. Some candy businesses hire underage children, work them too many hours and don't monitor their safety. Some authorities also charge that children in direct sales businesses sometimes are taught to misrepresent their products or the purpose for which they are sold.

Dorianne Beyer, an attorney for the National Child Labor Committee, said for-profit groups generally use children because they are much more successful in door-to-door sales than adults. "Who would you open your door to? The answer is a teen," Beyer said. "The bigger, taller and more adultlike you look, the less likely you are to be successful door-to-door." Such groups often try to fool consumers by using a "charitable sounding name that isn't a charity," she noted. In mid-December, the Better Business Bureau of Austin and Central Texas issued a consumer alert about a youth candy sales group that was operating under a name almost identical to that of a well-known local charity.

"In some instances these candy-selling kids are being recruited by conartists who operate for-profit enterprises and who may be exploiting these youth by violating child labor laws and by teaching them to make misrepresentations to consumers implying that they are selling candy on behalf of various charitable youth organizations," said John Etchieson, the Bureau's executive director. Daniel Brown, who heads the Houston regional office of the U.S. Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, said his office has encountered "some major problems with door-to-door candy sales. Many times we find youngsters a lot younger than 14 (the minimum legal age for working)."

Brown said most major cities have at least a few for-profit youth sales businesses. Many times they recruit low-income children who sell the products after school and on weekends. The businesses often start up and disband in short order, which discourages monitoring by local authorities. Brown said the federal government is concerned about potential child labor violations in candy-sales businesses, but is often hamstrung by jurisdictional problems. Often the business either is not engaged in interstate commerce or does not gross the $ 500,000 a year required for federal jurisdiction.

The Houston Chronicle found that of five door-to-door youth candy sales businesses known to have operated in Houston over the last year, three had closed their offices and the owner or the fourth refused to be interviewed. Hackman, however, invited the Chronicle to travel with and photograph the youngsters who worked under her supervision on a recent weekday after school. "I run a clean business," she said. "It's successful for the kids and we all make a good living." Hackman said her background in fund-raising led her to start Texas Teens in Action three years ago. She now employs four supervisors who work with eight to 10 teen-agers each day in different parts of Houston.

Hackman said she uses a rotating schedule to ensure that her teen-agers work only on alternate days and Saturdays. She also has a long list of rules -- no swearing, fighting, drinking, smoking, drugs or disrespect. A failing grade means no work until the grade is brought up.The Texas teens wear shirts that proclaim, "We're high on sales, not drugs."

"We work with mostly deprived kids, latchkey kids, kids that come from gang-related areas," she said.Hackman said most of the teen-agers she uses hear about the sales organization through friends. Sometimes, she said, parents call and ask her to hire their children. Parents must sign a detailed permission forms."In the summer, parents call me day care on wheels," said Hackman. "When kids get bored and have nothing to do, they get in trouble." For the sale of a $ 5 product, a young sales agent receives a commission ranging from $ 1 to $1.25, depending upon experience. Hackman orders the products from a California distributor.

Hackman's first stop on the recent sales outing was the modest subdivision where one of her star salesman, 16-year-old Laurence Jackson, lives. Jackson, a lanky sophomore at Eisenhower High School, said he makes as much as $92 in sales commissions and bonuses on a good Saturday."I like everything about this job," he said enthusiastically. "We have fun. We meet new people all the time."Hackman subsequently picked up seven other teen-agers at school and a neighborhood convenience store, including two brothers, 14 and 16, and their 15-year-old sister.Antwan Johnson, 16, a tall, thin youth, was heartened by three quick sales in succession in the targeted subdivision. Then he started getting some discouraging turndowns. "They said they supported the United Way. They always say they support something." he said after a door slammed quickly. On the next street are the two smallest salesmen, M.L. Pyles and Johnny Brown, cherubic 14-year-olds.

The youths both said they've had their share of surly customers, but have learned to shrug off the slammed doors. "One man said," Get away from here before I hit you," Brown said. "This man opened the door and I thought his dog was going to bite me," Pyles said.Both youth said they feel safer because they work together, one stationed on each side of the street.Hackman said the only injury she can recall was a bee sting.She said she uses trips to theme parks and other excursions as sales rewards."Some of these kids have never been out of their neighborhood until they start working with us."

Working Teens