In January, Chipotle Mexican Grill was fined $1.4 million for an estimated 13,000 Massachusetts child labor violations, the most significant child-labor case in state’s history. The violations, which occurred across six locations, were for employing minors beyond the maximum legal number of hours. Burger King, Qdoba, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s also paid fines for similar child labor violations in the last year.

Child Labor Today

The words “child labor” may seem outdated, spurring images of young children working industrial jobs in a different era. While children are rarely found in manufacturing or mill operation jobs that gave rise to American child labor laws, child labor still exists in the United States.

Today, there are 21.2 million “youth” workers in the United States with large influxes every summer when kids are out of school. The Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies “youth” as 16 to 24-year-old workers, though most industries may legally employ youth as young as 14-years-old. The United States has more of its youth in the workforce than any other developed country in the world. The largest percentage of youth workers is in the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes food services, followed by retail, education, and health services. Employers need only pay workers under 20 a “youth minimum wage” of $4.25 an hour for the first 90 days, which grafts well with students’ summer breaks and makes youth workers attractive in low-wage jobs.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the federal baseline for child labor law. However, within child labor laws, agriculture stands as a category of its own. United States labor law allows children to work in agricultural jobs at much younger ages than in other industries. For other sectors, the FLSA allows 14 and 15-years-olds to work but limits the number of hours. Generally, employees who are 16 or older may work unlimited hours in occupations other than those deemed hazardous. However, about half of states impose hour restrictions beyond that of the FLSA for youth workers.

Very few states go beyond FLSA’s hourly requirements for 14 and 15-year-old workers. Florida and Colorado further restrict the maximum hours they may work, and only California prohibits children under 16 from working altogether unless they have completed the 7th grade. States are split on hour requirements for minor workers 16 and older. Twenty-three states impose widely varying hourly standards, on average, prohibiting 16 and 17-year-olds from working over 8 hours per day and 40 hours per week. The other 27 states impose zero restrictions for the number of hours that a minor 16 or older may work.

Child Labor Law Rollbacks and Violations

In any given week, an estimated 153,600 children work in violation of child labor laws with the most common breaches as working excessive hours or working in hazardous occupations before the age of 18. The highest number of child-labor violations occur in the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes food services.

Employers have become increasingly lazy concerning child labor violations for three reasons: (1) states have generally rolled back child labor protections in a push to increase the number of youth workers, (2) child labor violations are an issue that is difficult to identify and combat, and (3) enforcement is rare due to lack of resources. As a result, employers have paid little attention to child labor requirements when filling staffing needs.

First, the general trend has been to loosen the reins on child labor laws. In 2011, Newt Gingrich said it was time to relax our “truly stupid” child labor laws. Missouri state legislator Jane Cunningham, who proposed removing restrictions on hiring kids under 14 and on hourly requirements, reasoned, “we’re not doing students any favor by telling them, ‘You cannot work.’” In 2011 and 2012, several state legislatures rolled back child labor protections. For example, Missouri cut the number of child labor violation investigators, Maine raised the hours a minor is allowed to work from 20 to 24 per week, and Wisconsin lifted the restriction on the number of hours 16 and 17-year-olds can work during a school week. The reasoning put forth is a kind of bootstraps ideology: kids should work to gain experience and develop a work ethic. The Trump administration continued the trend when the DOL proposed a new rule to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to work in occupations previously deemed hazardous.

Second, child labor tends to be an “invisible problem.” Youth workers hold a job on their own accord, making them unlikely to lodge a complaint or flag an investigation when working impermissible hours or in hazardous industries. Unlike wage law violations where a complainant willingly cooperates to be paid deserved wages, child labor violations do not incentivize youth workers to sound the horn.

Lastly, child labor laws are difficult to enforce. The Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor is the federal agency charged with enforcing every aspect of the FLSA, to which child labor laws are only a portion. In 2005, for example, the division devoted less than 5% of its total investigatory time on child labor matters. The division only has 730 inspectors to monitor employers and holds other responsibilities beyond monitoring child labor law violations. Thus, enforcing child labor law often falls on states, over half of which do not impose protections for minors beyond the FLSA.

The result is that employers turn a blind eye to child labor requirements. If history is a guide, employers may feel that bending the rules around youth employment is encouraged, or at least, unlikely to be enforced. Additionally, when unemployment was at its lowest in decades, the food-service industry struggled to find low-wage workers. Fast-food restaurants, in particular, have opened at an explosive rate over the last twenty years, oversaturating the market. As a result, employers in desperate need of low-wage workers may feel more apt to bend the rules surrounding minors to fill these positions. It is also possible that because child labor laws vary significantly from state to state, national employers fail to monitor the differences.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has personally lifted the curtain on child labor violations, achieving settlements with Qdoba, Wendy’s, and Chipotle for over 15,000 offenses. Healey’s investigators found that Chipotle regularly required 16 and 17-year-old employees to work beyond the state hourly limits, 9-hours daily, and 48-hours weekly.

Chipotle’s astounding $1.4 million fine may serve as a lesson for other employers to take seriously maximum hour requirements for minors. Additionally, to the extent that employers were desperate to employ workers despite age or hour restrictions amid low unemployment, COVID-19 has substantially increased unemployment rates. Although obstacles stand in the way of enforcing child labor protections, increased enforcement like that of Chipotle is a step in the right direction.