The United States Department of Labor recently fined several grocery store chains in the Midwest more than $130,000 for various violations of child labor laws. While child labor violations may sound serious, in reality the stores were not putting the young employees in harm’s way and no kids were abused or injured in the course of their employment. Instead, during routine audits, Department of Labor representatives found out that teens were simply allowed to participate in such mundane activities as operating bakery ovens and throwing cardboard boxes into trash compactors that were not running. However, federal child labor laws are extraordinarily specific about permitted and prohibited activities for employees under the age of seventeen. In the wake of the recently imposed fines, many employment experts are questioning whether many of the federal child labor laws are still relevant today or whether they simply create unnecessary burdens on employers who hire young workers.
The Department of Labor regulates child labor through the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which was enacted in 1938. At that time, legislators clearly remembered the post-Civil War abuses of very young children who were kept from school to work long hours in factories and textile mills, and sought to protect children with strict and specific laws. Though laws to protect younger workers from abuses or harm are still necessary and important today, the face of the workforce has completely changed and many of those strict laws are no longer relevant. However, federal child labor laws have yet to be revised to reflect current conditions and standards.
For instance, an employee under age seventeen may operate a fryer at a fast food restaurant, however laws specifically prohibit him from turning on a bakery oven. A child may operate heavy machinery on a family farm, however may not use a power mower for commercial landscaping purposes. Also, a sixteen year-old grocery store employee may not enter the freezer in the back of the store, even if there are anti-lock mechanisms on the door.
While the laws are meant to protect children, many employers hesitate to hire young workers because compliance with the laws may be burdensome. This eliminates jobs for many teenagers who wish to join the workforce. Companies are calling for the Department of Labor to reexamine child labor laws and revise them to reflect today’s working conditions. In the meantime, however, companies must continue to comply with existing laws. Therefore, if you are a young employee, it is smart to familiarize yourself with child labor laws and ensure the laws are followed to avoid any fines or sanctions for your employer. Furthermore, if you believe your employer is asking you to participate in prohibited activities or otherwise breaking labor laws, it is important to contact an experienced labor law attorney at HKM Employment Attorneys as soon as possible.