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April 26, 2000
Child labor: Here Come the Kids! Get Ready To Ensure They're Treated Lawful
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the end of the school year approaches, employers around the country will interview and hire promising young people for summer jobs in delis, grocery stores, restaurants, recreation programs, and a host of other businesses. There are lots of advantages to teen employment the kids want to earn money for entertainment and for school; they need to learn the discipline and the rewards of workplaces; parents want older kids to be occupied, not aimless; and employers need young people's energy on the job. The Department of Labor (DOL) supports those advantages but also acts as Super Watchdog over what's still called child labor. And unfortunately, breaking DOL rules turns out to be easy, even for large and experienced companies. Once more with feeling here are the federal rules:

Young people aged 16 and 17 may:

  • Work at any hour and with no more limits than adults on the number of hours.
  • Not operate motor vehicles.
  • Not work in so-called hazardous jobs involving power-driven machinery, roof locations, explosives, demolition, forklifts, meat slaughtering/processing, brick or tile manufacturing, and more.

Young people aged 14 and 15 may:

  • Work in offices, food preparation or service, cashiering, waiting tables, sales and other retail jobs, pumping gas, cleaning up, and several more functions.
  • Never work when schools are in session.
  • Never work between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. during the school year, or between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. during weekends and vacation.
  • Not work more than 3 hours a day/18 hours a week during the school year.
  • Not work more than 8 hours a day/40 hours a week when schools are out.

Problems plague retailers

Hy-Vee Stores, a Midwestern company operating 174 supermarkets and 130 smaller retail outlets, ran into trouble, according to DOL, with more than 200 youngsters aged 14 and 15. These workers had been found on the job as late as 8:45 p.m. and booking more than 5 hours of work on school nights, as well as more than 13 hours on days when schools were not in session. Hy-Vee, headquartered in West Des Moines, Iowa, settled with DOL in the fall of 1998 by paying a fine of $172,800 and creating a new compliance program.

With 850 department stores across the nation, Sears, Roebuck and Co. ran afoul of the regs, DOL said, in 44 out of 71 tested locations. More than 200 young people were involved, with the most common problem 16- and 17-year-olds being allowed to move power-driven equipment paper balers, freight elevators, and forklifts. In several other instances, Sears was alleged to have permitted 15-year-olds to work more hours than are allowable for that age group. While the company did not agree it had committed the violations cited by DOL, the two sides negotiated a settlement in March of 1999 that involved Sears' setting up an extensive monitoring program to ensure compliance and paying a fine of $325,000.

In the most recent instance, the 706-store Toys "R" Us chain was found in violation at 35 stores in the Northeast. There, according to DOL, more than 300 workers aged 14 and 15 worked more and later hours than permitted, much like the youngsters employed by Hy-Vee. Toys "R" Us reached an agreement in December 1999 to pay a fine of $200,000 and make many changes in its operations in order to prevent further violations.

What's an HR manager to do?

In all these cases, DOL and the retailers cooperated to create, enforce, and publicize new methods of ensuring that their younger employees play or rather, work by the rules.

At Hy-Vee

  • Each worker under 16 is assigned a special payroll code for entry in the computerized scheduling program; if more than the allowable hours are scheduled, the program alerts the scheduler.
  • Overlap coverage is scheduled at the crucial times of either 7 or 9 p.m., to prevent tardy incoming replacements from keeping youngsters after hours.
  • One supervisor is responsible for keeping an eye on the youngest workers hours and tasks during every shift.
  • Under-16 workers wear nametags printed in red rather than black, for easy identification by supervisors.
  • Rules are reviewed at semimonthly meetings with all supervisors.

At Sears, Roebuck

  • Each store conducted a self-audit of its child labor compliance practices.
  • Company headquarters developed and distributed printed materials to address common problem areas.
  • Education and training programs were also created in response to audit results.
  • A compliance manager was named to monitor both store audits and company responses and report regularly to DOL throughout a two-year follow-up period.
  • DOL reserved the right to visit stores to double-check progress and verify reports.

At Toys 'R' Us

  • Workers under 16 wear color-coded nametags, as they do at Hy-Vee Stores.
  • These young people's time cards are filed in separate racks, away from those of older workers, which eases supervisory monitoring at check-in and checkout.
  • All child labor restrictions have been posted on the Toys "R" Us Intranet, to prevent supervisors from being misinformed about allowable practices. In the wake of the violations, a company spokesperson had said several managers had, in fact, misunderstood the federal rules.

If your company has 14-, 15-, 16-, or 17-year-olds on the payroll, and plans to hire additional youngsters for the summer, it makes sense to gear up now with a compliance program aimed at keeping the firm out of trouble. Beyond those of the three retailers discussed earlier, other suggestions are to build knowledge of and compliance with child labor laws into supervisors' performance evaluations and to ask top management to stress the importance of the laws at periodic meetings with supervisors.

Reprinted from "What to Do About Personnel Problems (in Your State) with permission of the publisher, Business & Legal Reports, Inc. Copyright 2000, BLR

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