With labor shortages leaving fast food and other minimum-wage work environments short-staffed, many businesses are relying on teenage employees to fill the void. But employers must be aware of applicable child labor laws, which aim to protect minors’ health and safety and to avoid interfering with their 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. The protections should inform all hiring, scheduling, and work assignment decisions.
Modern Child Labor Protections
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. The protections reach teens working at grocery stores, fast food restaurants, movie theaters, offices, and all manners of work environments. And these protections are still actively enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).
In fact, the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) District Director Steven Salazar in Atlanta highlighted child labor as a growing concern in the current climate, saying, “Employers struggling to fill open positions have increased the numbers of teens in jobs not traditionally occupied by young workers.” He advised that “businesses who employ minor-aged workers must educate themselves on keeping these workers safe, especially those around hazardous conditions.”
Since January 2022, the DOL publicized 16 cases involving child labor violations and issued civil monetary penalties ranging from a couple thousand dollars to over $55,000. Primarily, the violations were discovered in restaurants, fast food joints, and grocery stores. The typical violations involved young teens performing tasks that have been identified by federal law as hazardous and teens working more hours in a week and later in the evening than allowed by federal law. The 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, such as casual babysitting, delivering newspapers (if that’s still a thing), 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 aren’t deemed “hazardous.” This will be discussed in more detail below. Permissible jobs include office and clerical work, cooking that doesn’t 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 isn’t deemed a “hazardous occupation” by the Secretary of Labor and if the tasks aren’t detrimental to their health and well-being. Marty Walsh, 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, just about anything that could cause a minor to lose a hand or otherwise be seriously injured. Some are less obvious. For example, minors generally can’t 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, as you can probably imagine, involve less obvious restrictions. For example, several cases involved minors loading, unloading, or operating power-driven trash compactors, which is prohibited with limited exceptions 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 exception. 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 and depend on age, task, and sometimes industry context. Additionally, state laws 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 allowed. Minors in this age group are subject to strict maximum hour limitations under the FLSA.
While school is in session, they 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.
Yet another common violation identified by the DOL involves the time of day 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds may work. Teens these ages 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), the hours are extended to 7 am to 9 pm. 16- and 17-year-olds are not subject to these limitations.
If you’re considering relying on younger teens to alleviate labor shortages, you need to be aware of your obligations under applicable child labor laws—and not just the federal law, but the state laws where you operate.
Emily Matta is an employment law attorney with Foulston Siefkin LLP in Wichita, Kansas. Before law school, she had worked at her parents’ restaurant since age 10. She was relieved to learn in law school that her parents were not in fact violating the FLSA’s child labor provisions by employing her. You can reach her at email@example.com.