U.S. and New Jersey Departments of Labor are at the shore, shopping malls and farms this summer, making sure young workers, some as young as 12, are not doing more than federal and state law allows.
Local business owners said that while child-labor laws do make sure minors are not taken advantage of, they can be difficult and time-consuming to maintain, making it tempting to hire only workers who are at least 18.
Three hundred businesses statewide were cited for violations of the child-labor laws by the state Department of Labor in 2011, according to data provided by the department. The list included 20 businesses each in Atlantic and Cape May counties and one each in Cumberland and southern Ocean counties. Most violations were for not giving the minor the required meal break, working more hours than allowed, not having an employment certificate or “working papers” or having incomplete records.
The state Labor Standards and Safety Enforcement program does yearly sweeps and investigates between 7,000 and 8,000 total complaints per year, a department representative said. During 2010 and 2011, the state handed out 1,323 citations for violations of the child-labor laws, assessing almost $588,000 in fines, most between $100 and $500 each. Shore towns and farms are especially targeted in the summer.
“They are in the process of inspecting blueberry farms now, because that’s what’s in season,” said Leni Fortson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Labor. Children as young as 12 can work on a farm in a nonhazardous job if their parents also work on the farm or give their permission for their child to work. The U.S. Department of Labor also has a program targeting violations at shopping malls, especially during the school year when the hours minors can work are more limited than in the summer.
Tanya Cain, job-placement coordinator at Atlantic City High School, said she had contacted state investigators when she believed a business was violating the law.
“I hear a lot from the students, sometimes just from their conversations,” she said. “I always give them pointers before they start their job so they know the rules, and I tell them if the boss gives them a hard time, tell me and I’ll handle it.”
She said she occasionally called business owners herself to make sure they were aware of the child-labor laws, and sometimes they are not, especially new small-business owners and those newly arrived from other countries.
“I explain to them that if the Department of Labor comes in, there will be a fine,” she said. “And sometimes if they get caught once, they don’t want to be bothered with minors. But I’ve also had businesses call me to find workers.”
Business owners said they understand the intent of the law, but it can be a challenge to monitor.
The Bashful Banana in Ocean City was cited once last year because a minor worked more than eight hours and was not provided a meal break. The penalty assessed was $500. Owner Heidi Edwards said the incident involved a worker who forgot to clock out for lunch.
“Keeping up with the law is a real problem,” she said. “It’s why I only bring in one or two minors each year. I like to have them start younger, to groom them so hopefully they’ll stay with me through high school, but you have to be really careful about tracking everything.”
She said the state auditor gave her advice on how to stay within the law.
“I won’t even start a minor until they present their working papers, and I put them on shorter shifts to avoid accidentally going over the maximum eight-hour day,” she said. “I know the state is just looking out for their best interests.”
Morey’s Piers in Wildwood has a special “minors training session” that reviews what jobs they can and can’t do, what hours they can work and what meal breaks they are required to get. The company had no violations in 2011.
“This is something you have to be acutely aware of,” said Denise Beckson, Morey’s director of operations and human resources. “Noncompliance can be costly.”
Most businesses cited in 2011 had just one or two violations, but a few had multiple citations on multiple dates costing several thousand dollars in penalties.
Beckson said Morey’s has internal policies that are more stringent than the law to give them a cushion. If a minor can’t work more than 40 hours, they only schedule them for 38. If they are required to have a meal after five hours, it gets scheduled for four hours.
All of those requirements disappear once a minor turns 18, which can be a deterrent to hiring younger workers. But Beckson said they like to start training some workers while they are younger so they can develop a pool of experienced workers for the next year who can become supervisors.
“We have at least 200 minors working here,” she said. “We work really hard to not have any violations.”
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