Every year, millions of teenagers apply for after-school or summer jobs at restaurants, stores, offices, and other workplaces. Hiring these teens can be extremely rewarding for you as an employer, but it also creates certain challenges.
In most cases, teenage employees are protected under the child labor laws of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), enforced by the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the Department of Labor (DOL). Your state may have its own set of child labor laws, too. If it does, you must follow whichever set of rules is stricter and more beneficial to the minors you hire.
Child labor laws cover everything from the hours and jobs teens can work to safety and recordkeeping requirements for employers. Breaking these rules – accidentally or intentionally – can be costly. The government can fine you up to $11,000 for each employee for which the child labor laws were not followed. In addition, if you are found to have intentionally broken the law, you could be fined up to $10,000 for the first violation – and another $10,000 and up to six months in prison for a second violation.
Regarding the child labor laws of the FLSA, the guidelines vary depending on the age of the teenager. This includes restrictions on work hours for teens under age 16, in addition to clarifying acceptable activities for all workers under age 18. Here are the key rules:
- In general, the FLSA does not allow minors under the age of 14 to work. However, a parent who is the sole owner of a business may hire his or her child in any occupation except mining, manufacturing, and other occupations declared hazardous by the U.S. Secretary of Labor.
- Children who are employed as actors or performers in a theatrical production are permitted to work at any age.
- Children aged 14 and 15 may work only three hours on a school day, eight hours on a non-school day, 18 hours in a school week (unless they are enrolled in an approved WECEP, in which case there are different laws regarding their hours) or 40 hours in a non-school week. Generally speaking, they can work only between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., but from June 1 through Labor Day they may work up to 9 p.m.
- In addition to restricting work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds, child labor laws limit the work teens may perform, with specific restrictions for grocery stores, restaurants, and as lifeguards.
- Fourteen-year-olds may not work as lifeguards, but 15‑year‑olds may with certain restrictions.
- Properly certified 15-year-olds may work as lifeguards at water amusement parks, wave pools, lazy rivers, and activity areas, but they may not work at the top of elevated water slides.
- The FLSA does not restrict the number of hours a minor aged 16 or older may work.
- The FLSA restricts the kind of work that anyone between the ages of 14 and 18 can perform.
- Although 17-year-olds are allowed to drive as part of their jobs, employers must follow specific rules and may not ask them to handle urgent, time-sensitive deliveries.
FLSA guidelines for paying teens
There are some minor differences to keep in mind when paying teens or setting up their employee files.
For example, a special minimum wage of $4.25 an hour can be paid to employees 19 or under for the first 90 consecutive days of their employment. It does not matter when the job offer was made or accepted (or when the employee was considered hired). The 90-day period starts with and includes the first day of work and is counted as 90 consecutive days on a calendar, not days of actual work.
If an employee turns 20 during the 90-day period, you must stop paying the special minimum wage on the day of his or her birthday. Also, if a young employee happens to be working for someone else at the same time he or she starts working for you, you still can pay the special minimum wage. It does not matter how many times an employee is paid this special wage -- as long as the employee is under 20 and it is the first time he or she is working for you, the 90‑day minimum wage rule applies.
After 90 days, you must pay the full federal minimum wage, unless your employee is a student learner (such as a vocational education student) or a full-time student working in a retail or service establishment, agriculture, or institution of higher education. In these instances, you may be able to continue to pay the employee less than the minimum wage.
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When age certificates are necessary
By regulation, you must keep records of the dates of birth of employees under age 19, their daily starting and quitting times, their daily and weekly hours of work, and their occupations.
You can protect your business from unintentionally violating the child labor provisions by keeping on file an employment certificate or age certificate for each minor worker to show that the youth is the minimum age for the type of job performed. State-issued certificates are generally acceptable for this purpose. You must return the age certificate to minors when their employment is complete, so they can share it with future employers without having to go through additional certification processes.
Teen employee rights
As you would expect, the FLSA prohibits employers from engaging in oppressive child labor practices, as defined by the Act. The FLSA also gives employees the right to file a complaint with the Wage and Hour Division of the DOL, and to testify or cooperate with an investigation or legal proceeding without being fired or discriminated against in any manner.