During rush hour at the Farragut North Metro stop, 10-year-old D.J. Hawkins is the only one standing still amid the 5 o’clock exodus of suburban commuters. He camps at the top of the escalator for the next two hours, hawking newspapers for the Washington Times—the chronically unprofitable conservative daily owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church.
On this day, D.J. is having trouble giving the paper away. Despite the throngs of potential customers streaming by, he’s sold fewer than 12 copies in the past hour. With a cut of 15 cents each, he’s made $1.80 for his troubles—chump change that won’t even get him fries and a Coke at the food court below. His supervisors tell him to use jingles like “Pennies, nickels, quarters, dimes, 25 cents for a Washington Times” to sell more papers, but D.J. knows if commuters don’t look him in the eye, they won’t respond to a cutesy come-on. Sitting atop the elevator ledge, he tries the soft sell instead, mumbling to passers-by, “Would you like a Washington Times?”
Anita Perkins, a distributor who contracts with the Times, has fallen upon a brilliant strategy for peddling the oft-maligned paper. Her newspaper operation includes 30 kids working at Metro stops throughout the District. Together, they sell an average of 1,000 papers a day. Perkins has discovered that putting a poor kid’s face on an underwhelming news product can move papers.
“Miss Perkins says it’s not whether people want a Washington Times that day,” says Doreece McVea, an 11-year-old hawker. “It’s personality that sells the papers.” She says all the kids know the story of Angie, an 8- or 9-year-old vendor with a little mouse voice who looks about 5. “Angie sold all of her papers,” says Doreece.
John Hardy, the Times’ circulation manager, says the pint-size sales people give the Times an edge. “When you have kids selling newspapers, it’s more effective. They draw attention to the product.”
Perkins’ technique may work, but it may also be illegal.
Farragut North is a far cry from an Appalachian coal mine, but by using 9-year-olds to peddle papers, the Washington Times is violating the District’s child labor laws. The statute makes an exception for the neighborhood paper boy, allowing kids 10 and older to deliver papers to private homes, but the law prohibits children under 12 from working the streets. It makes sense; there’s something palpably unseemly about a child working commuters for spare change, even if the customers receive something of nominal value in return.
That hasn’t stopped the Times from turning poor kids into human vending machines; the chubby-cheeked, sneaker-wearing vendors are more attractive than the orange streetside boxes and almost as cost-effective. And recruiting is a snap—once one kid starts the program, several family members often follow. Doreece sells papers at the Farragut West station, and her twin sister’s territory is just a few blocks away. Several of her cousins have been in the program, too.
Perkins makes it easy for them. Since she began the program last February, she collects her charges from schools and recreation centers during the academic year and comes directly to their homes in the summer. Bob Carter, the Times’ regional sales manager for the metro D.C. area, says he and Perkins interview each child’s parents and have signed permission slips on file. “We don’t just grab kids off the streets,” says Carter. “The parents are the ones coming to us.”
Carter sees nothing illegal in his prepubescent sales force. In fact, he’s turned the Times’ kidsploitation into a moral crusade. “We’re not looking at whether a kid is six months short of the child labor laws,” he says. “We’re working with underprivileged children, trying to teach them good ways to earn money.”
Carter won’t say just how much money kids earn selling his paper, an issue he views as irrelevant. “You’re not talking about employees, you’re talking about children who earn commission,” he says.
Labor law specialists disagree with Carter’s assessment. D.C. law only exempts your paper boy, not street hawkers, from the minimum wage. But even on his best day, D.J. makes nowhere near the $5.25 an hour he’s legally entitled to, which could explain why the Times is so eager to hire him—he works cheap and doesn’t complain about the zero-benefits package.
Jon Newman, a labor attorney at Sherman, Dunn, Cohen, Leifer, and Yellig, doesn’t buy the Times’ community service defense of its underpaid, underage newsies. “That’s crap,” he says. “There are plenty of unemployed adults that need jobs, but they’re not hiring them because they’d have to pay them minimum wage, or if they didn’t, they’d get called to the carpet for it sooner.”
Newman says that even if everyone involved in the sales scheme is satisfied with the terms, child labor and minimum wage violations are a serious matter. “The Washington Times might not be on the hook, but the independent contractor could be,” Newman said. “The middleman is still responsible for minimum wage laws.”
Still, as flagrant as the violations may seem, both the Times and Perkins can breathe easy knowing the District does not pursue child labor violations with any regularity. According to the Office of Work Permits, only one child inspector remains on payroll since the second inspector retired and was never replaced. That one inspector was on vacation at press time and was unavailable for comment.
Child labor violations aside, the Times does do legitimate business with District kids. The Times’ officially sanctioned Safe Summer ’96 program is run by the D.C. Department of Recreation and Parks’ Robin Dwyer. Dwyer has been doing youth intervention for the past 18 years. He has worked closely with Hardy, the Times’ circulation manager, to design the Times’ morning sales program so that kids ages 12 to 15 have something to do during the summer besides watch TV and torment their neighbors. And Safe Summer pays better. Beyond the standard 15 cents per paper rate that Perkins pays, the morning crew gets a $10 show-up fee—so the kids are not at the mercy of customers’ tips.
Hardy says he has more direct control over the Safe Summer program than the one run by the paper’s distributors. As a result, he says, “these kids do real well, interacting with people from all walks of life. You can see that their personalities become more outgoing and they gain confidence.”
Meanwhile, unless the local regulatory authorities intervene, 9-year-old kids will continue to compete with the local panhandler for the attention and pity of rush-hour Metro passengers, sucking in hapless commuters with their baby faces and sheepish plea, “Would you like to make a small donation to help keep kids off the streets?”—Nicole Kraemer