Kids will be kids. Translation: They act impulsively and do not always perceive dangers. When they do recognize peril, they often do not bother to take precautions, in part because of an abiding faith that they are invincible. Our law is aware of these naïve notions, and legislates protection against youthful folly. Child labor laws bar employers from assigning to minors (under age 18) designated tasks deemed to present dangers. The goal is to avoid preventable workplace accidents.
Violations of these rules can be tragic, resulting in both injuries to the minor, and liability shouldered by the employer.
This message was recently made clear to two brothers who co-own a restaurant in upstate New York named Violi’s. At ages 79 and 76, the siblings pled guilty to misdemeanor charges of violating child labor laws.1 A 17-year-old employee was directed to clean an industrial pasta-making machine, a task on the outlawed list. While the teen was scrubbing the device, something went awry and his right arm was severed at the elbow. He was airlifted to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for surgery to reattach the severed limb and repair nerve damage. To date, his medical treatment has included four surgeries and a medically induced coma. Several more procedures are anticipated.
The incident triggered a full investigation of the restaurant. Turns out, it did not have an employment certificate—working papers for the teenager—and had underpaid him
The sentence includes payment of $13,262 in restitution to the parents, plus fines to the state of $9,000 and unpaid wages to the victim in the amount of $200. The restitution includes the cost of trips to Boston incurred by the boy’s family to be with him during treatments.
The bad news does not stop there. The young employee is suing the defendants in a civil case seeking additional compensation for pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, ongoing doctor bills and mental anguish. An employee can sidestep workers compensation and sue the employer where the latter’s actions are considered reckless or intentional.
The restaurant, now shuttered, had been in business for 70 years. What an unfortunate ending to a seven-decade-run of a well-liked eatery.
Both federal and state governments promulgate a list of prohibited assignments. The tasks may vary, and some are prohibited for workers age 14 and 15, but permitted for those age 16 and 17. Additional examples of forbidden work include operating power-driven baking machinery; using fryers; cooking on an open flame; driving a motor vehicle; using food slicers, grinders, choppers and cutters; working in freezers, on ladders or on a roof; and acting as a ride attendant at an amusement park.
The lesson is easy and compelling: As a hotel manager, familiarize yourself and your supervisors with the federal and state-specific lists of barred tasks, and be sure your younger workers stay clear of them. Note: Child labor laws also restrict the hours minors can work. Consult the Department of Labor’s website or an attorney for more information on prohibited tasks and maximum hours.