With labor shortages leaving fast food and other lower-wage work environments short-staffed, many businesses are relying more heavily on teenage staff to fill the void. But employers must be aware of applicable child labor laws, which aim to protect the minor’s health and safety and to avoid interfering with the minor’s education. Employers should keep in mind three major categories of child labor protections under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”): job restrictions; hour restrictions; and time restrictions. These protections should inform all hiring, scheduling, and work assignment decisions.
Though the phrase “child labor” might evoke black-and-white images of soot-covered children with giant pickaxes slung over tiny shoulders, child labor protections apply beyond the narrow context of small children working in extremely dangerous conditions. These protections reach teens working at grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, movie theaters, offices, and all manner of work environments. And these protections are still actively enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”).
Since January 2022, the DOL has publicized 16 cases involving child labor violations and issued civil monetary penalties ranging from a couple thousand dollars to more than $55,000. Primarily, these violations were discovered in restaurants and grocery stores. The typical violations involve young teens performing tasks that have been identified by federal law as hazardous, teens working more hours in a given week than allowed by federal law, and teens working later in the evening than allowed by federal law. These cases offer a helpful reminder of the general protections afforded minors.
The FLSA places specific restrictions on the types of jobs and activities minors can perform, most of which depend on the age group the minor falls in.
Minors aged 13 and younger are generally prohibited from working except in situations exempt from the FLSA, like casual babysitting, delivering newspapers, and working in family-owned business.
Minors aged 14 and 15 have more opportunities, but they can only perform tasks specifically identified in federal regulations and that are not deemed “hazardous,” as discussed in more detail below. Permissible jobs include office and clerical work, cooking that does not involve an open flame or manually raising and lowering fryer baskets, bagging groceries, and ringing customers up at the register, among others.
Minors aged 16 and 17 can work just about any job so long as it is not deemed a “hazardous occupation” by the Secretary of Labor and the tasks are not detrimental to their health and well-being. The Secretary of Labor has issued 17 Hazardous Occupations Orders, which specifically detail these restrictions. Many are obvious: logging, mining, sawmilling, blasting, demolition, operating a crane, and just about anything that could cause a minor to lose a hand or be otherwise seriously injured. Some are less obvious. For example, minors generally cannot drive on public roads as part of their job, though there is a strict, limited exception for 17-year-olds.
The most common violations highlighted by the DOL this year involve less obvious restrictions. For example, several DOL cases involved minors loading, unloading, or operating power-driven trash compactors, which is prohibited with limited exception for 16- and 17-year-olds. One case involved a minor operating a dough mixer at a restaurant, which is prohibited for all minors with limited exceptions. And at least three DOL cases involved minors manually raising and lowering fry baskets at a fast-food chain, which is prohibited for 14- and 15-year-old employees.
It’s important to keep in mind that federal child labor jobs restrictions are highly specific, depending on age, task, and sometimes industry context. Additionally, state law may place even more restrictions on the kinds of work minors may perform.
Several child labor violations identified by the DOL this year involved 14- and 15-year-olds working more hours than permissible. Minors aged 14 and 15 are subject to strict maximum hour limitations under the FLSA.
While school is in session, this age group may only work up to three hours on a school day and up to 8 hours on a non-school day, for a maximum of 18 hours per week. While school is not in session, this age group may work up to 8 hours a day for a maximum of 40 hours per week. That means no overtime opportunities for these teens. Minors aged 16 and 17 are not subject to these maximum hour limitations.
Another common violation identified by the DOL involves the time of day 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds may work. This age group can only work outside of school hours and between the hours of 7 am and 7 pm. During the summer (June 1 through Labor Day), these hours are extended to 7 am to 9 pm. Minors aged 16 and 17 are not subject to these limitations.
Employers considering relying on younger teens to alleviate labor shortages need to be aware of their obligations under applicable child labor laws – and not just the federal law, but the state laws where they operate.