It wasn't fun and games when stuffed-toy retailer Build-A-Bear Workshop was recently cited for child labor violations. According to a federal audit, the company allowed workers under age 18 to operate trash compactors and ride in freight elevators without an adult operator. The investigation found that 14 minors at five stores nationwide were performing prohibited tasks.
Build-a-Bear took a Draconian approach to the problem: It instituted a policy of not hiring anyone under 18. You don't have to go that far. It's fine to employ teenagers, as long as you follow the rules.
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act () sets strict limits on the hours teens can work and the jobs they can perform—and those limits are different during school months and nonschool months. Some states have their own child labor laws.
Your risk of running afoul of the laws has increased, and penalties can be harsh. A recent government study found a surprisingly high percentage of teen employees working longer hours than federal law allows, and also in jobs deemed too dangerous by law. Now, federal and state safety investigators are more interested than ever in child labor compliance.
For example, The U.S. Department of Labor’s “Safe Child” initiative asks school districts to identify local companies that hire lots of teens. Then the agency keeps a watchful eye to make sure those companies comply. The DOL’s web site, www.youthrules.dol.gov, aims to educate your potential hires and their parents about child labor rules.
How to comply
Most children 13 and younger aren’t allowed to work except in odd jobs or in special circumstances, such as delivering newspapers, baby-sitting and doing chores around a private home. They can also work for their parents’ solely owned business.
Youths ages 14 and 15 may work outside of school hours in various jobs (except manufacturing, mining and hazardous positions), but the hours they work are limited to:
- 8 hours on a nonschool day, and 40 hours in a nonschool week
- 3 hours on a school day, and 18 hours in a school week
- Between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. (except from June 1 through Labor Day, when nighttime work hours are extended to 9 p.m.).
Once workers reach age 16, the employment picture gets less restrictive: 16- and 17-year-olds can work unlimited hours. However, they still can’t perform certain hazardous duties. For a list of off-limits jobs, go to
Workers 18 and older can work any job for unlimited hours, regardless of whether it’s considered hazardous.
States’ laws often mirror the FLSA, but some are more restrictive. For example, unlike the FLSA, more than half the states regulate the daily or weekly number of hours that 16- and 17-year-olds can work.
Rule of thumb: In situations where the federal and state laws differ, follow the stricter laws. Check state laws by visiting www.dol.gov/dol/topic/youthlabor/Statelaborlaws.htm.
Work permits, certification
Federal law doesn’t require work permits or proof-of-age certificates for a minor to be employed. But many states do require permits for workers of certain ages. Contact your state labor department or local high school guidance counselors to find out if permits or proof-of-age certificates are required.
These certificates are one of your best forms of protection from prosecution for employing an underage worker.
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