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.
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.