Millions of young people spend their summer vacations working in restaurants, stores, offices, and elsewhere. Many young people continue to work through the school year, often doing freelance jobs such as babysitting or gardening. However, most young people (and their parents) don’t realize that federal laws limit the hours that people under 18 can work, and the types of work that young people can do. Many employers are also in the dark about what the law has to say about employing young people. This article gives a brief outline of child labor law. If you employ young people on a regular basis, you should consult your lawyer to ensure that you are complying with the law.
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which dates back to the New Deal, limits when and under what conditions employers can hire individuals under the age of 18. The law is designed to protect the educational opportunities of young people and to ensure that young people are not employed under conditions that could be detrimental to their health and well-being. The FLSA applies to all employers whose annual gross volume of sales or business is more than $500,000 and to employers engaged in interstate commerce. Even if an employer is not covered by the FLSA, it may be covered by state laws regulating child labor. Breaches of the federal law can be costly: employers are subject to a penalty of up to $11,000 per worker for each violation of the FLSA child labor provisions.
To comply with the FLSA, employers must set minimum-age requirements for certain jobs. As a general rule, employers cannot employ children under the age of 14. There are three exceptions to this rule. Children under 14 can:
- work for a parent who is the sole proprietor of a business;
- work as actors; and
- work as news carriers.
Minors who are 14 or 15 years old can work in some retail and service industry jobs but are prohibited from working in certain hazardous occupations. Some jobs that are generally considered hazardous for 14- and 15-year-olds are:
- transportation jobs,
- construction jobs,
- mining jobs,
- jobs that require operation of power-driven machinery (including lawn mowers and trimmers),
- jobs that require maintenance or repair of equipment, and
- jobs in or around boiler rooms.
The law also limits the number of hours that young people aged 14 and 15 can work. They cannot work any hours during which they are expected to be attending school. They may work a maximum of three hours on a school day, up to 18 hours per week. On nonschool days, 14- and 15-year-olds can work for a maximum of eight hours a day. During school vacations, they can work up to eight hours per day, and up to 40 hours per week. Children under the age of sixteen cannot work before 7:00 a.m. or after 7:00 p.m. (9:00 p.m. in the summer).
The FLSA does not restrict the number of hours 16- or 17-year-old minors can work, but it does state that they cannot be employed in certain types of hazardous jobs. Jobs considered hazardous for 16- and 17-year-olds include:
- logging jobs;
- jobs operating elevators;
- jobs that require the employee to operate power-driven meat-processing, bakery, or paper-product machinery;
- jobs that require driving a motor vehicle on public roads;
- jobs performing wrecking and demolition work;
- roofing jobs; and
- excavation work.
Finally, the FLSA provides that employees under 20 years of age may be paid a sub-minimum wage of $4.25 an hour during their first 90 consecutive calendar days (not work days) of employment. After the first 90 days, however, employers must pay the regular minimum wage (the federal minimum wage is $5.15). The law prohibits employers from discharging or reducing the hours of employees who are paid the regular minimum wage in order to hire youths at the sub-minimum rate.
Some states have stricter legal limitations on child labor than those found in the FLSA. For example, some states have a more extensive list of hazardous jobs and activities, and also limit the number of work hours for all minors under 18―not just for those under 16. Some states also require that employers obtain age certificates to verify the age of employed minors, or require minors to get work permits from school authorities. Your lawyer can give you more detailed information about the child labor law requirements and regulations in your state. If both state and federal laws apply, the law setting the higher standards must be observed.
If you employ young people under 18, you can take several simple steps to ensure that you do not unintentionally violate child labor laws. Ask employees for legally acceptable proof of age at the time of hiring, and keep copies on file. You may wish to provide a worksheet for youth to sign when they are hired, to test and verify their understanding of what equipment is off limits to them, and the hours that they can work. Be aware that you may need to exercise caution if you permit shift-swapping among employees, to ensure that the FLSA work hour requirements are not breached. And finally, ensure that all managers understand the need for compliance with youth employment laws.