In the summer when most teenagers are thinking of vacation and the beach, some choose to enter the workforce, even if they only do so temporarily. A number of federal laws and regulations on the books are aimed at protecting them from dangerous kinds of work—and sometimes from dangerous employers.
The Department of Labor (DOL) has issued regulations for these younger workers in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Although there are a few exceptions, for the most part workers under the age of 18 are entitled to minimum wages and overtime pay just like their adult co-workers.
The FLSA also includes other protections by setting out when and what a minor can do. Federal law strictly prohibits the employment of minors in non-agricultural work falling within any of the DOL’s list of hazardous occupations.
These include—but are not limited to—manufacturing or storing explosives, driving a motor vehicle, working as an outside helper on motor vehicles, coal mining, firefighting, power-driven tools, exposure to radioactive substances and many more. Many of them have to do with dangerous tools, equipment and processes that are commonly employed in manufacturing and agriculture.(You can find a full list here).
There have been indications that DOL is seriously considering the possibility of relaxing some of these restrictions, particularly when it comes to opening up apprenticeship opportunities for 16- and 17-year olds, but don’t expect these changes to happen anytime soon, and most certainly not by this summer.
“Creating and implementing these changes will take time. For at least this year, employers should assume the status quo,” says attorney Natasha Banks of the law firm of Fisher Phillips.
The hazardous occupations exclusions are the only federal child labor restrictions that apply to 16- and 17-year olds. On the other hand, anyone below the age of 14 can do little in the way of legal work other than casual babysitting or delivering newspapers. But options expand for minors who are 14 or 15 years old.
Children that are 14 and 15 years of age generally can perform tasks such as office and clerical work, intellectual or artistically-creative work, cashiering and stocking shelves. They also can perform limited food service work, maintenance work (buildings or grounds) and, in some instances, lifeguarding, running errands and washing vehicles, among other things.
“Even so, for this group employers must be mindful not just of the type of work, but of the hours,” Banks notes. For example, federal law only allows the employment of 14- and 15- year olds in non-agricultural work as long as it is in accordance with specific total-hour and time-of-day restrictions in regard to possible scheduled school sessions.
“These can be difficult to apply given that school sessions vary widely, including that some cross into the summer months or go year round. At bottom, the main factor when it comes to scheduling work will be whether the particular day is a school day,” Banks says. “For big-picture purposes (such as hiring), however, it is often best to begin with whether the local public school will be out of session for the relevant workweeks.”
If school is not in session, federal law specifies that 14- and 15- year olds can work eight hours a day and 40 hours a week. When school is in session, they can work only a maximum of three hours per school day, a maximum of eight hours on a day when they are not in school, but no more than 18 hours a week.
Important Steps to Take
“Beefing up your staff for the summer season is a welcomed relief for many employers,” Banks points out. “Additionally, summer jobs expose youth to tangible skills that foster independence and the ability to gain valuable work experience.”
On the other hand, she reminds employers that the FLSA child labor restrictions are heavily enforced, and that DOL operates on the basis that it is employer management who bears the burden of abiding by these rules. With this in mind, Banks offers the following advice:
Get and preserve a DOL-sanctioned age certificate. If you hire an individual who turns out to be younger than you thought, DOL will not be influenced if you claim the young person “looked older” or that you were otherwise misled about their real age. “To avoid misjudging a minor’s age and violating the child labor regulations, obtain a qualifying age certificate even if not required by state law,” she recommends.
Some states do require that employers obtain wage certificates for certain occupations, while others do not. However, all states require that some sort of age verification be obtained by employers and be kept on file.
Clearly outline the job duties associated with vacant summer-job occupations. Don’t simply rely on the job title when determining if a position includes prohibited kinds of work. Dig deeper and consider the actual job duties. “Many times employers mistakenly assume a role is permitted based on its title when, in actuality, the activities carried out in this position are prohibited,” Banks says. “Carefully review both the permitted and prohibited work, especially before hiring an individual under 16 years of age.”
Inform adult employees of the specific tasks each minor worker should not perform. Train other members of management on what tasks can and cannot be assigned to minor workers. Create a written record of this training by distributing a memorandum that clearly indicates the child labor limitations for each minor employee. Also consider informing other employees who interact with the minor, and perhaps even the minor him or herself.
Make sure each youth employee is properly supervised. Be very attentive to how they are supervised when you employ minors. “One suggestion is to implement a mentor/mentee system where a seasoned worker is assigned a minor-employee to supervise,” Banks suggests. “This can assist management with alleviating the task of micro-managing your summer staff.”
Because you may find that more restrictive state laws are controlling for your operations, federal legal requirements could very well turn out to be only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to regulating these employees. “At a minimum, an employer should review its hiring and employment practices with respect to minors, and implement a process to ensure compliance with the FLSA and any other applicable state laws,” Banks says.