As summer approaches, countless teens everywhere are gravitating toward jobs in the food service industry, which welcomes young workers but frequently makes headlines for child labor violations.
Chipotle. Chuck E. Cheese. McDonald’s. Wendy’s. Burger King. Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. Popeyes. Subway. These fast food outlets have been cited by the U.S. Department of Labor in recent years for child labor violations that involved operating dangerous machinery, including industrial trash compactors and dough mixers.
In 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 Department of Labor statistics. Many citations are for wage theft or excess hours worked, but others are for having teens operate dangerous machinery that can result in serious injury and even death.
In Tennessee, a 16-year-old boy was reaching inside a meat grinder at a supermarket while cleaning it last year when the grinder started up and amputated his forearm. The supermarket owners were fined $65,289 for violating labor laws that ban minors from operating or cleaning meat processing machines. Certainly, falls and burns are more common injuries in the food industry, but inexperience combined with work in a fast-paced industry can have severe consequences.
The dangers are particularly acute for young workers who are low income or immigrants, because investigators say they can be afraid to voice complaints for fear of losing a much-needed job or bringing undue attention to their family’s immigration status. Minors may simply be unaware of their rights as employees that are outlined in the Fair Labor Standards Act, advocates say.
“With trash compactors, it could be that they don’t think it’s a problem if they see other people doing it or they’re told to do it. They may think it’s just a simple thing to open the compactor and throw in the garbage,” said Mirella Deligi, assistant district director of the U.S. Department of Labor in San Diego.
This 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 teens told Deligi, who investigated the case, that they had seen a sticker on the trash compactors stating that the machinery shouldn’t be operated by minors but using these compactors to throw trash away in the kitchen was part of their assigned duties.
The Costa Mesa-based Man-Cal Inc. and Cal-Man Corp., both owned by the same family, which owns those three McDonald’s restaurants and seven others in Orange County, cooperated with the investigation and agreed to provide more training and oversight to managers and employees.
Franchise owner Virginia Mangione declined to answer questions but issued a statement via McDonald’s corporate office that read, in part, “When we became aware of the violation, swift action was taken to reeducate managers to ensure we continue to be in compliance with labor laws and standards.”
The penalties assessed took into account that the companies didn’t have any previous 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 post bigger, more visible signs,” she said. Labor officials usually ask employers to require teen workers to wear a different colored cap or clothing so that managers can easily identify minors in the workplace, but the franchise owner was already doing so.
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, hospitality and food service. However, Deligi said it can be challenging to communicate with some minors, so the Labor Department tries to first get in touch with parents. 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 teens need to work because their families are still recovering from income losses incurred during the pandemic, making them particularly vulnerable.
Santa Ana resident Rosa Salazar said she relies on her son’s earnings from working at a Wendy’s to help pay the family’s $2,400 rent on their two-bedroom apartment.
“I try to pick up overtime at my own job, but it’s just not enough money,” said Salazar, who works as a janitor. “I would rather that my son focus on school, but my husband said he can contribute since he’s 16 now. And he wants to work, too, so he can buy his clothes.”
Salazar said she didn’t know whether her son has any “trash duties” at his job, but that she didn’t think it would be appropriate for him to complain if he does because she doesn’t want him to lose his job, conveniently located near their home.
Regina Martinez said she worries about her 17-year-old daughter’s safety coming and going to her cashier job at a Wetzel’s Pretzels.
“She’s just running a cash register so I think she’s fairly safe at her work, but she has to take the bus by herself from a street that I don’t like,” Martinez said. She said she preferred that her daughter not work, but that she wanted to save up for senior year expenses such as prom.
“I can’t afford those kinds of extras,” she said.
Underage workers in the United States are protected by laws shaped by decades of research, yet young workers still suffer disproportionately higher injury rates than older workers.
Agriculture is undoubtedly 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 age 17 and under, according to a GAO report. As a result, policymakers have focused their attention in recent years on improving child labor laws targeting the agriculture industry.
But the food service sector deserves extra scrutiny at a time when many young workers are gravitating toward an industry hungry for cheap, easy labor.
“Hundreds of thousands more” workers who are 18 years old or younger are estimated to be employed in fast food and full-service restaurants than were working in late 2020, according to a January 2022 report by the restaurant industry analysis company Black Box Intelligence.
The restaurant industry, which has been experiencing greater-than-usual turnover, is increasingly hiring teens but may be doing so at the expense of their health and safety, according to a story by labor and economic reporter Michael Sainato in the Guardian. In some states, like Wisconsin and Ohio, legislators eager to please business interests have proposed easing child labor laws. Just last week, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers vetoed legislation that would have expanded some minors’ allowable working hours.
In California, minors are required to obtain a work permit that’s signed by the employer and a parent or guardian. The form requires the employer to note the number of hours and kind of work to be performed by the minor. Companies employing minors must comply with state and federal labor laws. In California, this means that minors age 16-17 cannot work between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. (12:30 a.m. on nonschool nights), though federal law has no such limitations.
There are many potential solutions to better ensure minors stay safe while working in food service: heftier fines for violations; providing the parent and teen with at least a brief listing of their rights and protective regulations if they speak out about violations; bigger 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 unsafe for teen workers. Pre-pandemic estimates show there were about 90,000 California restaurants, including fast food establishments, said California Restaurant Association spokeswoman Sharokina Shams.
Clearly, we’ve come a long way from the days when photographer Lewis Hine furtively documented the plight of grade-school-age kids in torn and dirty clothing toiling 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 be reading about a local teen worker’s gruesome accident — or death.