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The Restaurant Industry Has a Child Labor Problem

Over the past few years child labor violations have surged across the food industry. Why?

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Protestors holding signs reading “Popeyes stop exploiting child labor” stand outside a Popeyes location in Oakland, California
A protest against child labor outside a Popeyes in Oakland, CA
Fight for $15

If it seems like child labor has been in the news a lot lately, that’s because it has. In recent months, a number of companies, many of them in the food industry, have been accused of violating federal and state labor laws by allowing children to work long hours in sometimes hazardous conditions. In early May, a Department of Labor investigation found that two 10-year-old children were working, unpaid, at a McDonald’s franchise in Louisville, Kentucky, operating dangerous deep fryers and sometimes working as late as 2 a.m.

These children were among 305 child workers at McDonald’s locations operated by three franchisees in Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and Maryland, and those operators now face more than $200,000 in collective fines. McDonald’s later said that the 10-year-olds were the children of a manager at the restaurant, and not authorized to be in the kitchen. In a statement to CNN, the chain’s chief people officer said, “These reports are unacceptable, deeply troubling and run afoul of the high expectations we have for the entire McDonald’s brand.” The investigation sparked an outcry in which many people were surprised to learn that child labor is still a pervasive problem in the United States.

On May 18, workers at a Popeyes location in Oakland walked out on strike after filing a complaint with the California Labor Commissioner and Cal/OSHA, alleging that one worker, Johmara Romero, started at the restaurant when she was 13, working six days a week for 40-45 hours, sometimes during school hours and often until midnight on school nights. The complaint also alleges that these long hours often caused her to not get enough sleep and be late to school, and that she eventually fell behind in her studies. In California, the complaint notes, “13-year-olds are not allowed to work at all on school days and are not allowed to work more than 8 hours on non-school days.” In response, Popeyes closed the franchise and said in a statement, “We will not tolerate any violation of employment laws and if any of these allegations prove true, we will take action against this franchisee.”

Karla Palma Mendoza, a 17-year-old worker at the same Popeyes, also described her working conditions in the complaint, saying, “I have been working 5-hour shifts after school. At one point I fell far behind in my classes, and it was hard to catch up because after school, all I could do was work, eat and sleep. After school I have no time for homework when I am working.” She also said she felt forced to skip a graduation celebration because she was afraid of losing her job. “I am sad that I am going to miss Grad Night, my class is going to Los Angeles and Disneyland for graduation, but I decided not to go because being broke is not for me, and I am afraid of asking for time off of work and getting retaliated against and then losing my income.”

Child labor is especially prevalent in the food industry. Restaurants commonly offer children their first jobs around the age of 16. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with waiting tables or cashiering at the local diner before you turn 18, underage work is a common site of abuse. In 2022, nearly 4,000 children in the U.S. were found to be working at companies that had violated labor law, according to Department of Labor statistics, and many of those violations occurred at restaurants. In the past year alone, franchise operators at Crumbl Cookies, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, Arby’s, and Dairy Queen have all been busted for child labor violations. Similar infractions have occurred at small, independent restaurants. And those are just the ones we know about.

And then there is the problem of the agricultural sector, which, of course, supplies the food served in these dining establishments. Some estimates indicate that there are as many as half a million children ages 8 to 17 working in agricultural jobs, where 72-hour workweeks are “not uncommon” and about 100,000 of them will be injured on the job each year, according to one Office of Government Accountability analysis. Experts argue that loopholes in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, allow for an agricultural system in which children as young as 12 can work long hours on farms with parental permission.

And now, nearly 100 years after the act’s passage, lobbying groups and legislators are trying to make it easier to put children to work, under the guise that it is good for both children and the economy. Here’s a breakdown of why experts are concerned about the increased prevalence of child labor right now, the child labor laws that are being considered across the country, and what this means for the grown-ups working in the hospitality industry — and all workers.

Why is child labor legal at all?

In the 18th century, children were expected to work, whether that was doing chores around the farm, or taking an apprenticeship when they were teenagers. And of course, enslaved children had always been forced to labor. But the idea of children’s work took a different flavor during the industrial revolution, as children went from family farms to factories. “In 1820 children aged 15 and under made up 23 percent of the manufacturing labor force of the industrializing Northeast,” writes economist Robert Whaples for the Economic History Association. Mills would often hire whole families at once. In nonindustrialized areas, the expectation of children working on farms remained, enough that equipment companies advertised directly to their parents.

Many people saw children in factories as a social good, believing that it both helped children “avoid the sin of idleness” and helped the country increase production. But there were very few regulations around childrens’ work, and those that existed were not consistently enforced, resulting in children facing injury and sometimes death on the job. (For instance, many of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 were teenage girls.)

As more industries industrialized, Progressive Era reformers and unionists worked to expose the conditions children were working in, prevent exploitation, and stress the importance of children attending school. Thanks to their work, in 1938 the country passed the Fair Labor and Standards Act, which prohibits “oppressive child labor,” prohibits children under 14 from being employed in nonagricultural labor, limits the hours children can work, and prohibits anyone under 16 from working in any occupation “declared to be hazardous by the Secretary of Labor.”

However, even now, children as young as 12 can work on farms, and without as many rules around hazardous labor. “Agriculture was carved out of most of the New Deal labor legislation because conservative Southern Democrats, who were segregationists, controlled the key committees in the Senate,” says Brishen Rogers, a labor law professor at Georgetown University. Those senators wouldn’t pass the laws if agricultural workers had certain protections. “The agricultural workforce in the South was mostly Black or disproportionately Black. The racial political economy there is very, very clear.” These laws have made it easier for children to work alongside their parents at farms, which is often seen among migrant farm workers.

What’s causing the spike in child labor now?

It is, perhaps, not surprising that an uptick in child labor followed the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic instability that accompanied it. A 2021 analysis from the International Labour Organization found that child labor surged across the globe as family breadwinners lost their jobs, died from the virus, or became too ill to work. At the same time, employers looked to child workers as a cheap way to make up for the labor shortage that still looms in the restaurant industry and beyond. “We’re seeing more child labor because, instead of responding to the labor shortages by making it more attractive to work at these businesses, owners found that it was cheaper to make it easier for children to work,” says Skip Mark, a political scientist at the University of Rhode Island who is also co-director of the CIRIGHTS data project, a quantitative data set on global human rights.

Immigrant children in particular are being exploited. “What seems to have happened recently is that with all of the asylum petitions being processed at the border, a lot of children got sponsored to come into the country without parents,” says Rogers. “And they were sponsored by people who then basically charged them to house them and sent them to work, in many instances.” A February report from the New York Times revealed numerous instances of child labor law violations, with children working in cereal factories and processing meat for grocery stores.

Because these are violations of state and federal law, restaurant owners and others are lobbying state legislatures to change those laws, making it easier — and cheaper — for children to work in food service businesses. In April, More Perfect Union reported that the National Restaurant Association had “spearheaded” the introduction of a bill in the Iowa legislature that sought to make it easier for children as young as 14 to work longer hours and in more hazardous conditions in restaurants and other businesses like industrial laundry facilities. That law eventually passed, and will now allow 14-year-olds to work six-hour days, and 16-year-olds to serve alcohol in restaurants as long as the restaurant’s owners have parental permission. The National Restaurant Association did not respond to Eater’s request for comment.

Similar measures are going into effect in other states, like Arkansas. In March, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law eliminating age requirements for child workers in the state, where it was already legal for 14- and 15-year-olds to take jobs. “The Governor believes protecting kids is most important, but this permit was an arbitrary burden on parents to get permission from the government for their child to get a job,” a spokesperson said on Sanders’s behalf in March. “All child labor laws that actually protect children still apply.” Critics, though, say that the requirement was an essential protection for youth workers, especially undocumented youths, who are especially vulnerable to exploitation.

Elsewhere, lawmakers in Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota are currently considering bills that would loosen their respective child labor laws. And in 2022, New Hampshire passed a law extending work hours for children and allowing 14-year-olds to bus tables in restaurants where alcohol is served. (The prior limit was 15 years old.) That same year, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor vetoed a bill that would have extended working hours for child workers.

Why are these lawmakers advocating for more relaxed child labor laws?

The lawmakers behind this new, pro-child labor legislation argue that working is good for children. “What we’re doing is providing them opportunities to have a job during the same time of day that’s already allowed to their classmates to participate in extracurricular activities within their school,” said Iowa state Republican senator Adrian Dickey at a press conference in April, echoing the idea that children should not succumb to idleness. The after-school job has long been lauded as an important part of American adolescence, something to teach children about responsibility, money management, and prepare them for a lifetime of work. And restaurant work has been an easy first job for many, with its flexible shift schedules and the ability to learn on the job. After all, most people don’t need prior training to bus a table.

But many children aren’t working just for the weekend cash and the life lessons. The pandemic forced children into the workforce globally to support their families, especially as schools closed and child care was scarce. In America, many of those jobs are at cafes and restaurants. And even benign-seeming after school jobs can have negative consequences. According to a 2011 study, working more than 20 hours a week during the school year had adverse effects on students’ grades, and other studies suggest it can impact sleep habits at a crucial time in childhood development. And of course it robs children of free social time they could be spending on extracurricular activities or just hanging out with friends and family before they enter a lifetime of work.

There’s also a big difference between a teen scooping ice cream over summer break or helping out at their parents’ restaurant and a 10-year-old working unpaid until 2 a.m. at McDonald’s. And while the latter is an obvious FLSA violation, as Rogers puts it, “the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act sets a floor, but then states are allowed to legislate more stringent standards.” These new laws are chipping away at the FLSA baseline, making their own interpretations of what counts as “hazardous” work and extending the number of hours children can work during a school day.

What does more child labor mean for the food industry — and society — at large?

The risks feel almost too obvious to point out. “A decent society doesn’t allow children to work in factories where they’re going to get their hands cut off,” says Rogers. ”This is something that happens repeatedly throughout the history of capitalism. Capitalist enterprises face relentless pressure to keep wages down because they’re in competition with each other,” and Rogers believes that if the state doesn’t regulate certain standards, these enterprises will keep pushing for the cheapest and most vulnerable workers and to eliminate safety precautions.

The prevalence of child labor can’t be separated from the lack of child care in America. A manager at McDonald’s may not be making that much more than line workers. “You can’t afford childcare, so you bring your kids to work because you don’t know what else to do,” says Rogers. “It’s a sign of a broken country. It’s not the parents’ moral failing, it’s a sign of McDonald’s not taking responsibility.”

Mark is unequivocal when he speaks about the broader impacts of child labor on adult workers in the food industry and beyond. “More kids in the workforce will undermine efforts to improve working conditions and wages for adults,” he says. “We know that one of the best ways to reduce the overall number of child workers is to strengthen labor unions. If labor laws are looser, and more children are in the workforce, it’s going to make it harder to organize and weaken attempts at collective organizing.”

Mark is also concerned about the uptick that this increase in child labor will have on an already beleaguered education system, and research indicates that children who work long hours are more likely than their counterparts to drop out of high school. “I think it’s going to normalize the idea that it’s okay to divest from education and just start working from an early age, because there’s no point in going to school,” he says. “School is more than just training for a job. It’s where you learn how to be a good citizen, where you learn about how the world works and how to engage in civic and social life.” Taken out of school and put into the restaurant industry, the main thing many children will learn is how it feels to be exploited.