It’s summer and fast food work is easy and sometimes dangerous

As summer approaches, countless teenagers everywhere gravitate toward food service jobs that welcome young workers but often make headlines for violating child labor regulations.

Chipotle. Chuck E. Cheese. McDonald’s. Wendy. Burger King. Aunt Anna’s pretzels. papaya. Underground. In recent years, the US Department of Labor has cited these fast food outlets for child labor violations involving hazardous equipment, including industrial trash presses and kneaders.

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Over the past five years, more than 13,000 teenagers have been hired in violation of labor laws designed to protect their safety and rights as workers, according to Department of Labor statistics. Many of the fines involve wage theft or overtime work, but there are also those where teens operate dangerous machinery that can cause serious injury or even death.

In Tennessee, a 16-year-old boy was cleaning a meat grinder at a supermarket last year when the meat grinder went on and amputated his forearm. Supermarket owners have been fined $65,289 for violating labor laws that prohibit minors from operating or cleaning meat processing machines. Of course, falls and burns are more common in the food industry, but inexperience combined with working in a rapidly changing industry can have dire consequences.

The dangers are especially serious for young low-income workers or immigrants, as investigators say they may be afraid to file complaints for fear of losing a much-needed job or drawing undue attention to their family’s immigration status. Human rights activists say that minors may simply not be aware of their rights as employees, as set out in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“It can happen with garbage compactors that they don’t see it as a problem if they see other people doing it or are told to do it. They might think it’s easy to open a compactor and throw it in the trash,” said Mirella Deligi, Assistant District Director for the US Department of Labor in San Diego.

These days, many low-income or immigrant teens are forced to work because their families are still recovering from income losses suffered during the pandemic, making them particularly vulnerable.

This was likely the case at three Santa Ana McDonald’s franchises that were fined $25,920 earlier this year for charging 18 minors with loading and operating trash compactors indoors. Some of the teenagers told Deligi, who investigated the case, that they saw a sticker on the trash compactor saying that minors should not operate the equipment, but using the compactors to dispose of trash in the kitchen was part of their assigned duties. .

Man-Cal Inc. and Cal-Man Corp. from Costa Mesa, owned by the same family that owns the three McDonald’s restaurants and seven other restaurants in Orange County, cooperated with the investigation and agreed to provide additional training and supervision to managers and employees.

Franchise owner Virginia Mengione declined to answer questions but released a statement through the McDonald’s corporate office, which read in part: “When we became aware of the violation, immediate action was taken to retrain managers to ensure we continue to comply with labor laws.” and standards.”

According to Deliga, the penalties took into account that the companies did not have any previous violations and that there were no injuries as a result of violations that occurred between June 2019 and June 2021.

“They agreed to put up bigger and more visible signs,” she said. Labor officials usually ask employers to require teenage workers to wear a cap or a different color so that managers can easily identify minors in the workplace, but the franchise owner has already done this.

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Fast food restaurants usually a high priority for child labor investigators who target industries in which minors work and tend to have a high number of violations, including retail, hospitality and food service. However, Deligi said it can be difficult to communicate with some minors, which is why the Labor Department is trying to contact 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 teens are forced to work because their families are still recovering from income losses suffered during the pandemic, making them particularly vulnerable.

Santa Ana resident Rosa Salazar said she relies on her son’s income from working at Wendy’s to help the family pay the $2,400 rent on their two-bedroom apartment.

“I’m trying to work overtime at my job, but there’s not enough money,” said Salazar, who works as a janitor. “I would have preferred my son to focus on his studies, but my husband said he could contribute as he is now 16 years old. And he also wants to work to buy his own clothes.”

Salazar said she doesn’t know if her son has any “junk duties” at work, but she doesn’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 close to home.

Regina Martinez said she was worried about the safety of her 17-year-old daughter, who will work as a cashier at Wetzel’s Pretzels.

“She just works with the cash register, so I think she is safe at her job, but she has to take the bus herself from a street that I don’t like,” Martinez said. She said she prefers her daughter not to work, but would like to save up for senior year expenses such as graduation.

“I can’t afford those extras,” she said.

In some states, such as Wisconsin and Ohio, legislators seeking to cater to business interests have proposed relaxing child labor laws.

Underage workers in the United States are protected by laws shaped by decades of research, yet younger workers still suffer a disproportionately higher injury rate than older workers.

Farming is unquestionably the most dangerous industry for teens: according to a GAO report, occupational deaths from 2003 to 2016 accounted for more than half of all workplace deaths among children aged 17 and under. As a result, policymakers have focused in recent years on improving child labor laws relating to the agricultural sector.

But the catering sector deserves special attention at a time when many young workers are gravitating towards an industry that craves cheap and easy labor.

Fast-food and full-service restaurants are estimated to employ “hundreds of thousands” more workers aged 18 and under than at the end of 2020, according to a January 2022 report by restaurant industry analyst firm Black Box Intelligence.

The restaurant industry, which has higher-than-normal employee turnover, is increasingly hiring teenagers, but may do so at the cost of their health and safety, according to an article by a reporter on labor and the economy. Michael Sainato in Guardian. In some states, such as Wisconsin and Ohio, legislators seeking to cater to business interests have proposed relaxing child labor laws. Just last week, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers vetoed legislation that would have expanded the allowable hours of work for some minors.

In California, minors must obtain a work permit signed by their employer and a parent or guardian. The form requires the employer to indicate the number of hours and type of work the minor is to perform. Companies employing minors must comply with state and federal labor laws. In California, this means that minors aged 16–17 cannot work from 10:00 pm to 5:00 am (12:30 pm on non-school evenings), although federal law has no such restriction.

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There are many potential solutions to better ensure the safety of minors while working in the catering industry: higher fines for violations; providing the parent and adolescent with at least a brief list of their rights and protection rules if they speak of violations; Larger stickers or posters placed directly on trash compactors and other hazardous equipment.

“It would be helpful to get more education,” Deligi said.

A few unscrupulous or negligent franchise owners shouldn’t tarnish the entire fast food industry as unsafe for working teens. Before the pandemic, it was estimated that there were about 90,000 restaurants in California, including fast food establishments, said Sharokina Shams, a spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Association.

It is clear that we have come a long way from the days when photographer Lewis Hine furtively documented the plight of school-age children in torn and dirty clothes working in factories. But the number of child labor violations in the food industry using dangerous equipment such as meat grinders and cardboard presses should worry us, because on any given day we can read about the horrific accident or death of a local teenage worker.

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