As summer approaches, countless teenagers everywhere are turning to jobs in the restaurant industry, which welcomes young workers but often makes headlines for child labor violations.
Chipotle. Chuck E. Cheese. McDonalds. At Wendy’s. Burger King. Aunt Anne’s Pretzels. Popeyes. Subway. These fast food outlets have been cited by the US Department of Labor in recent years for child labor violations involving the use of hazardous machinery, including industrial trash compactors and dough mixers.
Over the past five years, more than 13,000 teens have been employed in violation of labor laws designed to protect their safety and rights as workers, according to Labor Department statistics. Many quotes relate to wage theft or overtime work, but others relate to teenagers operating dangerous machinery that can result in serious injury or even death.
In Tennessee, a 16-year-old boy was looking inside a meat grinder in a supermarket as he was cleaning it last year when the grinder started and amputated his forearm. Supermarket owners were fined $65,289 for violating labor laws prohibiting minors from operating or cleaning meat processing machinery. Granted, falls and burns are more common injuries in the food industry, but inexperience combined with working in a fast-paced industry can have serious consequences.
The dangers are particularly acute for young low-income or immigrant workers, as investigators say they may be afraid to press charges for fear of losing a much-needed job or drawing undue attention to the status immigration of their family. Miners may simply be unaware of their rights as employees that are outlined in the Fair Labor Standards Act, advocates say.
“With trash compactors, they might not think it’s a problem if they see other people doing it or if they’re told to do it. They may think it’s just a simple thing to open up the compactor and throw it in the trash,” said Mirella Deligi, deputy district director for the US Department of Labor in San Diego.
That was likely the case at three McDonald’s franchises in Santa Ana that were fined $25,920 earlier this year for assigning 18 minors to load and operate indoor trash compactors. Some of the teenagers told Deligi, who investigated the case, that they had seen a sticker on the trash compactors stating that the machine was not to be used by minors, but that the use of these compactors for throwing trash in the kitchen was part of their assigned duties. .
Man-Cal Inc., based in Costa Mesa, and Cal-Man Corp., both owned by the same family, which owns these three McDonald’s restaurants and seven others in Orange County, cooperated with the investigation and have agreed to provide more training and oversight to officers and employees.
Franchise owner Virginia Mangione declined to answer questions, but released a statement via McDonald’s corporate headquarters that said, in part, “Upon becoming aware of the violation, prompt action was taken to re-educate managers to ensure we continue to comply with labor laws and standards.”
The penalties imposed took into account that the companies had not committed any prior violations and that no injuries had occurred as a result of violations that occurred between June 2019 and June 2021, Deligi said.
“They agreed to put up bigger, more visible signs,” she said. Labor officials usually ask employers to require teenage workers to wear a cap or different colored clothing so managers can easily identify minors in the workplace, but the franchise owner was already doing that.
Fast food restaurants tend to be a high priority for child labor investigators, who target industries that employ minors and tend to have a high number of violations, including retail, hotels and restaurants. However, Deligi said it can be difficult to communicate with some minors, so the Labor Department tries to get in touch with the parents first. She noted that the federal agency has investigators who speak other languages, such as Vietnamese, Korean, Farsi, Portuguese and Spanish.
These days, many low-income or immigrant teenagers have to work because their families are still recovering from the income losses suffered during the pandemic, which makes them particularly vulnerable.
Santa Ana resident Rosa Salazar said she was counting on her son’s income from working at Wendy’s to help pay the family’s $2,400 rent for their two-bedroom apartment.
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“I try to put in overtime at my own job, but it’s just not enough money,” said Salazar, who works as a janitor. “I would prefer my son to focus on school, but my husband said he could contribute as he is now 16. And he wants to work too, so he can buy his clothes.
Salazar said she didn’t know if her son had “unnecessary chores” at work, but she didn’t think it would be appropriate for him to complain if he did because she didn’t want to. not that he loses his job, ideally located near their home.
Regina Martinez said she was worried about the safety of her 17-year-old daughter who came and went from her job as a cashier at Wetzel’s Pretzels.
“She’s just running a cash register, so I think she’s pretty safe at work, but she has to take the bus by herself from a street that I don’t like,” Martinez said. She said she preferred her daughter not to work, but wanted to save for last year’s expenses like prom.
“I can’t afford those kinds of extras,” she said.
In the United States, underage workers are protected by laws shaped by decades of research, but younger workers still suffer disproportionately higher injury rates than older workers.
Farming is arguably the most dangerous industry for teens, with work-related fatalities from 2003 to 2016 accounting for more than half of all workplace fatalities among children aged 17 and under, according to a report by the GAO. As a result, policymakers have focused their attention in recent years on improving child labor laws targeting the agricultural industry.
But the restaurant industry deserves closer examination at a time when many young workers are gravitating towards an industry hungry for cheap and easy labour.
“Hundreds of thousands more” workers aged 18 or younger are estimated to be employed in fast food and full-service restaurants than at the end of 2020, according to a January 2022 report from the company. Black Box Intelligence restaurant industry analysis.
The restaurant industry, which is experiencing higher than usual turnover, is hiring more and more teenagers, but may do so at the expense of their health and safety, according to an article by a journalist labor and economy Michael Sainato in the Guardian. In some states, such as Wisconsin and Ohio, lawmakers eager to please business interests have proposed relaxing child labor laws. Just last week, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers vetoed legislation that would have expanded permitted work hours for some minors.
In California, minors must obtain a work permit signed by the employer and a parent or guardian. The form asks the employer to note the number of hours and the type of work to be performed by the minor. Companies that employ minors must comply with federal and state labor laws. In California, this means that minors between the ages of 16 and 17 cannot work between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. (12:30 a.m. on nonschool nights), although federal law does not impose such limitations.
There are many potential solutions to better guarantee the safety of minors when working in the restaurant industry: heavier fines in the event of an offence; provide the parent and adolescent with at least a brief list of their rights and rules of protection if they report violations; larger stickers or posters placed directly on trash compactors and other dangerous machinery.
“More education would be helpful,” Deligi said.
A few unscrupulous or careless franchise owners shouldn’t taint the entire fast food industry as dangerous for teenage workers. Pre-pandemic estimates show there were about 90,000 California restaurants, including fast food outlets, California Restaurant Association spokeswoman Sharokina Shams said.
Clearly, we’ve come a long way since the days of photographer Lewis Hine stealthily documenting the plight of school-aged children wearing ragged, dirty clothes working in factories. But the number of child labor violations in the food industry involving dangerous machinery such as meat slicers and cardboard balers should worry us that, any day now, we could read the horrific accident – or death of a local teenage worker.