Employers appear to be guilty of widespread violation of federal child labor laws, requiring minors to perform unlawful or unsafe tasks or work late on school nights, according to a survey by the University of North Carolina Injury Prevention Research Center of 866 teenagers working in the retail and service industries. In addition, one-third of the teenagers said they had received no job-safety training.
According to Joseph Beachboard, an employment-law attorney and partner with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak and Stewart in Torrance, Calif., a lot of the problem could stem from unsophisticated employers, such as franchise operators, which employ huge numbers of teens but are often green.
"I don't think it's a willful violation," Beachboard said. "I don't even think it's economic."
Often, he says, employers just don't know the laws, which are "not always necessarily intuitive. . . . It's a case of ignorance."
Dawn Castillo, supervisory epidemiologist for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, agreed that ignorance frequently accounts for lack of enforcement of laws related to teens in the workplace. Employers "generally have good intentions in wanting to provide jobs to youth, but often don't understand the laws," she said.
She said employers need to know and comply with laws, identify safety and health hazards, provide appropriate supervision, label equipment teens may not use, train teens to use safe procedures, make teens aware of tasks they may not perform and report all injuries.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of U.S. teens are injured in the workplace, and 70 die from those injuries, according to federal statistics. Many teens surveyed indicated they operated hazardous equipment, received no safety training and worked alone after dark, leaving them vulnerable to burglaries or other crimes.
Among teens who work in grocery stores and restaurants, 47 percent said they had performed tasks prohibited by law for employees under 18, according to the survey.
Employers recognize that teenagers should not be operating dangerous equipment, and most large organizations know the rules and abide by them, Beachboard said.
Rather than willfully disregarding laws, he said, variations in regulations from state to state might create a scenario in which employers could be unaware of specific regulations.
"There's not a universal federal standard that always applies," he said.
Some teenagers injured on the job fail to report injuries, fearing retaliation. Beachboard said it's important to educate teens that retaliation will not result. In fact, he said, a documented workplace injury can trigger workers' compensation benefits.
"You might see an increase in utilization of that benefit if they (teens) knew that it existed," he said.
Employers who fail to follow labor laws face government fines, as well as employee lawsuits. Employers who do not restrict work hours as required by law create the "most logical" scenarios under which a lawsuit might be filed, Beachboard said. "You could probably bring that on a class (action) basis," he said, noting that "the infrastructure exists across the country to bring litigation on a wage-and-hour basis."
More than 2.3 million 16- and 17-year-olds worked in the United States in 2005, according to NIOSH. Statistics for younger adolescents are unavailable.
The Labor Department mandates that employees must be at least 16 to work in most nonfarm jobs and at least 18 to work in nonfarm jobs designated as hazardous. Youths who are 14 and 15 may work outside school hours under specific conditions.
May 1, 2007
Copyright 2007© LRP Publications