This week, a federal investigation found that three Kentucky-based McDonald’s franchises illegally employed at least 305 children, including some as young as 10 years old. The three franchises — Bauer Food LLC, Archways Richwood LLC, and Bell Restaurant Group I LLC — operate 62 stores across Kentucky, Indiana, Maryland, and Ohio.
Federal guidelines restrict the number of hours and types of jobs 14- and 15-year-olds can perform. According to investigators, however, children at these McDonald’s locations were found working “more than the legally permitted hours” and performing tasks “prohibited by law for young workers.”
One of the franchises, Bauer Food LLC, also illegally employed two 10-year-olds. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, minors under the age of 14 are generally not permitted to work. Despite this, the two children did a variety of tasks like prepping food, cleaning the store, and taking drive-thru orders — working as late as 2 AM.
According to the Labor Department, one of the 10-year-olds also operated a deep fryer, which is prohibited for workers below the age of 16. Neither of the 10-year-olds were even paid for their work, the Labor Department determined.
“Too often, employers fail to follow the child labor laws that protect young workers,” Wage and Hour Division District Director Karen Garnett-Civils said in a press release. “Under no circumstances should there ever be a 10-year-old child working in a fast-food kitchen around hot grills, ovens and deep fryers.”
Meanwhile, at Bell Restaurant Group I LLC, two children under the age of 16 were allowed to work during school hours. These actions violate federal child labor regulations, which state that 14- and 15-year-olds generally cannot work during school hours.
This is not the first time a McDonald’s restaurant has employed and endangered minors. Last month, the Labor Department found that a 15-year-old worker at a Tennessee McDonald’s franchise suffered hot oil burns after being illegally assigned to use a deep fryer. In February, seven McDonald’s locations in Pennsylvania illegally allowed 154 children younger than 16 “to work at times not permitted by child labor laws and for more hours per week than allowed.” Nine workers under 16 were also found to be using deep fryers, investigators say.
In December 2022, another investigation found that 13 McDonald’s locations in the greater Pittsburgh area “permitted 14-and-15-year-old employees to work outside permissible hours,” affecting 101 minors. At one of these locations, a worker younger than 16 was also allowed to operate the deep fryer.
The Labor Department’s findings come at a time when there has been a surge in reported child labor violations. This uptick in violations has also coincided with efforts by state lawmakers to weaken child labor laws.
The national surge in illegal child labor
In recent years, the U.S. has seen a massive increase in child labor exploitations. In February, the U.S. Department of Labor “announced a crackdown on child labor after tracking a 69% increase in illegally employed kids since 2018.” According to the Labor Department, in 2022, there were 835 cases involving child labor violations, effecting 3,876 minors.
Recent child labor violations include “one of the largest labor cases in the Department’s history.” In February, the Labor Department announced that Packers Sanitation Services, one of the largest food sanitation service providers in the U.S., “paid $1.5 million in civil money penalties” after an investigation found that the company employed over 100 children from ages 13 to 17 in “hazardous occupations.”
The investigation found that the children were forced to work “overnight shifts at 13 meat processing facilities in eight states.” The facilities included Tyson Food, JBS, Maple Leaf Farms, and Cargill plants. Packers Sanitation Services also had children working with “hazardous chemicals and cleaning meat processing equipment including back saws, brisket saws and head splitters.” At least three minors were injured while working for the company, according to the Labor Department.
In July, Reuters reported that a Hyundai subsidiary, SMART Alabama LLC, had children as young as 12 working at a metal stamping plant in Alabama; state and federal laws prohibit working with dangerous machinery at metal stamping and pressing operations before the age of 18.
In December, Reuters reported that “state and federal authorities were investigating as many as ten Alabama plants that supply Hyundai and Kia,” Hyundai’s sister company. The investigation came after a child labor probe found children “as young as age 13” working at SL Alabama LLC, a Hyundai supplier. A raid of the facility resulted in “several children” being removed from the factory. After the reports, Hyundai promised to “sever relations” with both SMART and SL Alabama.
Deregulating child labor
While child labor exploitation is on the rise, Republican lawmakers across America are simultaneously pushing to weaken child labor laws. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), in 2023, bills proposing to weaken protections against child labor have already been introduced in seven states: Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. In Iowa, the introduced bill would remove restrictions on “hazardous work” in order to “allow children as young as 14 to work in meat coolers and industrial laundries.” In Ohio, the bill proposes extending the hours that teenagers are allowed to work. Additionally, new legislation introduced this week in Wisconsin would permit “children as young as 14 to serve alcohol” at restaurants.
In Arkansas, where two of the meatpacking plants implicated in the Packers Sanitation Services case are located, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) signed a law in March removing the requirement for children under 16 to provide an employment certificate to work. The certificate was provided by the Arkansas Department of Labor and included a signature of a parent or guardian and proof of age. In Missouri, a similar bill was recently introduced to eliminate the requirement for work permits.