Businesses in some industries rarely utilize minors as employees, but in many other sectors, teenagers comprise a large component of the total work force; indeed, some enterprises engaged in various retail, restaurant, and other businesses rely on minors to a considerable degree. The primary advantage associated with employing minors is that compensation is far less costly than if the employer decided to hire adults as staff. But employers should be aware of the various legal restrictions that state and federal agencies have placed on the employment of minors, and they should also be cognizant of the particular challenges and rewards that accompany the decision to hire teenagers.
In addition to state laws, which have varying rules regarding child labor and compulsory school attendance laws, employers should be familiar with the federal government's Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The rules in the FLSA differ from individual states in some respects; in cases where differences exist, the stricter law prevails.
Ignorance of state and federal child labor laws will not save employers from fines, some of which can be quite substantial. "Many companies have discovered that there are two sides to the child labor issue," wrote Steven Slutsky in Journal of Business Strategy. "On the one hand, minors can be a cost-effective and flexible supplement to your core work force. But on the other hand, the penalties for violating the child labor laws can be steep." Indeed, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) imposes fines of up to $10,000 per minor on those businesses that violate the child labor provisions detailed in the FLSA, and in the mid-1990s the DOL upped the stakes for employers who flout or remain ignorant of American child labor law by adding fines of $10,000 per infraction —not per minor—and eliminating the cap on the total amount of fines that could be imposed. These latter measures were taken for the purpose of punishing employers whose violations contributed to the death or significant injury of a minor.
Slutsky admitted that the likelihood of an employer being singled out by the Department of Labor for a random compliance audit is remote unless the company is active in a high-risk industry. "But don't assume that the DOL won't find out about child labor law violations," he warned. "Word usually gets back to the agency in the form of complaints from underage employees or their parents or even unions. The publicity factor is involved here as well, since violations that result in injuries or death often are picked up by the media."
Small business owners, then, should make sure that they—and their supervisory personnel, if any—are fully aware of what minor employees are permitted to do. First, it is important to recognize that employees can basically be broken down into three age groups: workers who are 18 years old or older, and thus regarded as adults in the eyes of the law; youngsters who are 16 or 17 years old; and minors who are 14 or 15 years old (employment of children under the age of 14 is severely restricted, although parents who employ their children enjoy greater leeway).
RESTRICTIONS ON MINORS UNDER AGE 18 According to the Department of Labor, minors under the age of 18 are not allowed to perform jobs that the department has classified as detrimental to their physical safety, mental safety, and health. These restrictions forbid minors from operating (or setting up, repairing, adjusting, or cleaning) any power-driven machines, including woodworking machinery, metal forming machines, punching and shearing machines, paper products machines, circular and band saws, bakery machines, meat-processing equipment, or hoisting apparatus (forklifts, cranes, derricks, freight elevators). In addition, minors are prohibited from engaging in the following activities at their place of employment:
It should be noted that exceptions to some of these rules may be made for minors who are participating in recognized apprenticeship programs. On a practical basis, however, these restrictions mean that minors are of limited use in non-office settings to businesses engaged in construction, manufacturing, and the like. Still, manufacturers and construction firms do maintain staff devoted to clerical work and custodial duties, and minor employees may be suitable for these slots. The above restrictions generally have little impact on businesses looking for cashiers, salespersons, stocking personnel, and other positions that do not require handling of motor-driven equipment.
RESTRICTIONS ON MINORS AGE 14 AND 15 Additional restrictions have been put in place by both federal and state agencies concerning the employment of 14-and 15-year-old minors. "The environment in which 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds do their work also plays an important role in determining whether the duties are permissible," cautioned Slutsky. "For example, although workers in this age group may clean, wrap, seal, label, weigh, price, and stock produce, they can't perform these tasks in a freezer. And while they may assemble, pack, and shelve merchandise—as can 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds—they can't do it in a warehouse or rooms where manufacturing and processing work takes place." Moreover, owners of construction and transportation companies should be aware that minors under age 16 may not perform any kind of work (including office work) on the construction site or transportation medium. Other areas in which 14-and 15-year-olds are restricted from working include boiler/engine rooms, meat coolers, and places where products are being loaded or unloaded from conveyors or railroad cars.
In addition, 14-and 15-year-old teens are not allowed to work before 7:00 a.m. and after 7:00 pm during the school year. They are also not permitted to work during school hours. Finally, these minors may only work certain numbers of hours. During periods of the year when school is in session, 14-and 15-year-old minors may work no more than three hours a day on school days, no more than 18 hours total a week, no more than eight hours a day on non-school days, and no more than 40 hours total during weeks in which school is not in session (summer, vacation breaks).
Small business owners and employment analysts agree that the key to securing skilled and motivated minors as employees lies at the very beginning, with the application and interview. Remarkably, some employers tend to lump teen employees together into one indistinguishable mass, but in reality, dramatic differences exist within this demographic group (and all other demographic groups, for that matter) in such areas as punctuality, honesty, ambition, talent, intelligence, and all-around quality. In order to find topnotch minor employees, small business owners are encouraged to pay close attention to the information provided in the job application form. Are the students high academic achievers in high school? Do they participate in extracurricular activities? Do they provide good references, such as former employers or school teachers/administrators?
In addition, employers should take the time to conduct a thorough interview with minor applicants, even if it is for a part-time entry level position. Every employee plays a part in shaping company culture, and if the new hire has a bad attitude, it has the potential to influence other employees. This is particularly true for businesses that have a significant number of minor employees. For example, an employer who hires a minor for a floor sales position only to discover that the new hire has a previously undetected predilection for emotionally distant, "cool" behavior may find other emotionally malleable—and previously customer-friendly—staffers adopting some of the same mannerisms.
Employers who hire minors also need to recognize that, as Bess Ritter May said in Supervision, "adolescence is a transitional period. Those who are in this age group are forming their personalities and identities." This sometimes awkward period of development will likely manifest itself in all phases of the teen's life—including work. But while employers may experience some frustration dealing with teens who are buffeted by school, societal, and peer pressures, they can take comfort in the fact "that it's easy to train these kids since they have little or no prior work experience and have consequently acquired little or no work-related bad habits," said May. "Most intelligent youngsters can also be instructed quickly concerning specific business systems and procedures, pick up and remember new things easily and have few or no preconceived ideas concerning how specific workplace tasks should be handled. Such aptitudes have surprised and astonished many supervisors." Observers also note that younger people often have considerable aptitude for office work that is done on computers, since a much greater emphasis is placed on that area in today's school environment.
Minor employees may require closer supervision than other employees. Often, they are unfamiliar with various facets of the workplace, and they may be so intimidated that they will be reluctant to ask questions about issues or tasks that they do not fully understand. Employers should anticipate this and 1) fully explain projects and tasks, and 2) maintain a work environment that is clearly receptive to their questions. In addition, employers should adopt a firm, but positive and constructive manner in various areas of training. This includes communication that may be necessary to correct errors. Adopting a tactful, reasonable, but firm approach in such instances is important, wrote May, because "adolescents who are starting out on their first or second jobs are often more sensitive to corrections concerning their work by those who are older and (presumably) wiser. Such youngsters do not always understand that it is only their skills that are being faulted and not their innate characters and consequently are often very defensive."
Small business owners who employ minors should also consider giving their top workers opportunities to show their abilities. Young employees are fully capable of contributing to your business's success in ways other than filing paperwork or sweeping floors, and they sometimes develop into valued employees after reaching adulthood.
Finally, employers should at all times remain cognizant of the importance of adhering to state and federal laws. "Conduct periodic check-ups of your compliance with child labor law," Slutsky counseled business owners. "Be sure to keep your managers up to date on the child labor issue. Make sure they are not hiring new employees without obtaining proper age documentation, and then key them into which employers are minors and what type of job duties they may perform. After all, it won't do your company much good if you are well-versed in the laws, but the managers who directly oversee workers are unaware of the requirements." In addition, small business experts recommend that owners (or knowledgeable managers) establish a regular practice of reviewing underage employees' schedules to catch violations before they occur.
Ebeling, Ashlea. "Kids on the Payroll." Forbes. June 14, 1999.
Grossman, Robert J. "Summer Jobs Mold Tomorrow's Workforce." HRMagazine. April 1997.
May, Beth Ritter. "Youthful Problems—Adult Solutions." Supervision. September 1993.
Sanders, Lisa. "Revenge of the Nerds." Business Week. June 16, 1997.
Slutsky, Steven H. "No Minor Asset." Journal of Business Strategy. May-June 1995.
Williams, Nicolas. "Regional Effects of the Minimum Wage on Teenage Employment." Applied Economics. December 1993.