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Wage and Hour Laws for Minors and Teens

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal law that governs various aspects of employment, including pay and workplace standards. It plays a crucial role in safeguarding the rights and well-being of workers, including minors and teens. Child labor laws are in place to protect the safety, education, and well-being of young workers. There are restrictions on the types of jobs and hours minors can work. This ensures that youth have opportunities for education and safe working conditions.

Covered employers, which include businesses engaged in interstate commerce or those with annual sales exceeding a certain threshold, are subject to the FLSA's provisions.

In addition to federal law, state laws have rules for businesses and organizations that employ minors. The rules that provide the most protection to young workers prevail.

The following is a brief summation of the federal child and youth employment rules.

Youth Minimum Wage

Under the FLSA, covered employers can pay employees under 20 years of age a youth minimum wage of $4.25 an hour during the first 90 days of employment. If an employee turns 20 during the 90 days, their pay must be raised to the applicable minimum wage.

Some states and cities require a higher minimum wage and don't have an exception for youth workers. The higher state or local minimum wage would apply.

Worker Protections

The rules for the employment of minors vary by age and task.

Youth workers under 14 can only engage in the following types of work:

  • Delivering newspapers to customers
  • Babysitting on a casual basis
  • Working as an actor or performer in movies, TV, radio, or theater
  • Gathering evergreens and holly and making wreaths at home
  • Working for a business owned by the worker's parents, as long as it's not in mining, manufacturing, or any of the specified hazardous occupations

Youth workers aged 14 or 15 have restrictions on their working hours:

  • Can't work during school hours
  • No more than three hours of work on a school day, including Fridays
  • No more than eight hours of work on a non-school day
  • When school is in session, no more than 18 hours of work a week
  • When school isn't in session, no more than 40 hours of work a week
  • The work hours extend from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., except from June 1 to Labor Day, during which they extend to 9 p.m.

Child labor regulations limit jobs that 14- and 15-year-olds may hold to the following:

  • Office jobs, retail, and food service establishments
  • Bagging groceries, stocking shelves, operating the cash register
  • Office work
  • Teacher, musician, artist, and performer
  • Kitchen work involving the preparation of food and beverages
  • Limited cooking duties
  • Cleaning cooking equipment and surfaces
  • 15-year-olds with certification can work as lifeguards and swimming instructors at swimming pools and water parks

Federal rules do not limit 16- and 17-year-olds' work hours. However, restrictions apply to the types of jobs they can perform. Specifically, 16- and 17-year-olds can work any job that the Secretary of Labor has not declared hazardous.

Once a young worker is 18, most youth work rules don't apply. There are no limits on the number of hours 18-year-olds can work or the types of jobs they can perform.

Federal law does not require a work permit, but some states require them.

Non-Agriculture Exemptions

Youth under 16 who work in nonagricultural jobs in a business owned by their parents may work any time of day and for any number of hours. However, parents can't employ their children in manufacturing, mining, or any occupation declared hazardous by the Secretary of Labor.

Partial Exemptions

For apprentices and student-learners who are 16 or 17 years old, there are specific circumstances under which they are permitted to engage in work that is typically deemed hazardous. These conditions allow them to handle certain equipment and tasks, provided safety guidelines are met. These youths may be allowed to:

  • Use machines designed for woodworking that are powered by electricity
  • Work with machines used for shaping, punching, and cutting metal
  • Operate machinery involved in processing meat and participate in the processing tasks
  • Use machines such as balers and compactors designed for managing paper products
  • Operate saws and cutters, including power-driven circular, band saws, and other cutting tools
  • Participate in the application and installation of roofing
  • Take part in operations that involve digging and earth-moving

These exemptions are designed to provide hands-on learning experiences under controlled and regulated conditions to ensure the safety and well-being of young workers.

Minors aged 14 and 15 are eligible for employment within specialized programs managed and monitored by their schools. These career or study initiatives offer flexibility in the regulations typically governing the employment of individuals in this age group. Notably, these programs permit these young students to work during school hours, a deviation from the usual rules. Additionally, students participating in such programs can work in certain roles that are generally not allowed for their age group.

In addition, the FLSA provides a limited exemption from the youth employment rules for minors 14 through 17 years of age who are not required to attend school past the eighth grade.

Agriculture Exemptions

Minors of any age can work on their family farm.

Exemptions From Hazardous Work Prohibitions

Along with the parental exemption, there are a few other exemptions from hazardous occupations in agriculture. Fourteen and 15-year-olds are eligible for certain exceptions to the rules prohibiting dangerous work in the agricultural sector. These exceptions are limited and specific.

For instance, under carefully controlled conditions, these minors can participate in certain work classified as hazardous, if it is part of an educational program in vocational agriculture. The conditions for such an exemption include:

  • The hazardous work must be a secondary aspect of the educational program.
  • The duration of the work must be sporadic and limited.
  • A knowledgeable and experienced individual must provide constant oversight during the work.
  • The educational institution must integrate safety lessons with hands-on experience.
  • There must be a well-defined program detailing a sequence of varied tasks to be learned and performed.

This approach ensures that the work is a learning experience and conducted in a safe environment.

Individuals who are 14 or 15 years of age and have successfully finished training programs in tractor or machinery operation, such as those offered by 4-H organizations, are allowed to take on roles in specified high-risk agricultural tasks. This is contingent upon the following conditions:

  • The employer has instructed them on the safe and appropriate operation of the equipment they will use
  • The employer closely supervises them or checks for safety at regular intervals

This ensures that the young workers are adequately prepared and monitored while engaging with potentially hazardous equipment.

State Law Considerations

Some states have greater protections for youth workers and may have different rules regarding the youth minimum wage. However, in a recent trend, several states have introduced or approved laws within the past two years that rolled back restrictions on child labor, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

One state increased the number of hours teenagers can work during that summer. Another state lowered the age at which a minor can work in an establishment that serves alcohol. The changes are the result of a worker shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It's important to refer to your state's laws and the federal rules.

Penalties

Violations of youth employment rules can have serious consequences. Non-compliant employers may be subject to civil penalties, injunctions, and, in severe cases, criminal prosecution. The U.S. Department of Labor, through its Wage and Hour Division, oversees enforcement and they have the authority to take legal action against violators.

Enforcement of child labor laws has increased. In 2023, the Wage and Hour Division reported a significant uptick in the illegal employment of minors. Investigators noted a 14% increase in child labor violations compared to the previous year. Since 2019, such violations have surged by 88%.

In Fiscal Year 2023 alone, the division concluded 955 investigations and imposed over $8 million in penalties, marking an 83% rise from the previous fiscal year.

Cases include:

  • A Wisconsin-based company paid a $1.5 million fine for hiring over 100 minors, aged 13 to 17, for hazardous work in meat processing facilities across various states.
  • Nine minors were found operating dangerous machinery at a Wisconsin sawmill.
  • A company was fined over $140,000 for the illegal employment of nine teenagers in roles that involved operating hazardous equipment.

To intensify focus and resources on this issue, the Department of Labor initiated an interagency task force earlier in the year.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes important regulations to protect the rights and well-being of youth workers. Both employers and young employees must be aware of these rules that ensure safe and fair working conditions. For more information, see FindLaw's Wage and Hour Laws section. If you need help understanding the rules related to youth employment or legal assistance, contact a labor attorney.

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