After four days of sweeps by federal inspectors earlier this year, the Labor Department has fined 43 Maryland employers more than $45,000 for child labor law violations involving nearly 200 minors.
Violations were found at 40 percent of the 110 establishments checked, virtually all of them in food service and sales, the agency reported.
Most of the alleged violations involved 14- and 15-year-olds who worked too many hours or too late at night. Federal law limits them to 18 hours weekly during the school year, working no later than 7 p.m.; they may work 40 hours a week during vacation. (Most paid work is prohibited for children younger than 14.)
About one-quarter of the violations in Maryland were for using minors in prohibited hazardous occupations, said Travis Campbell, the department's district employment standards chief. For example, children were found using meat slicers and deep fryers, or working in cooking or baking jobs, he said.
The highly publicized nationwide crackdown by the Labor Department -- which resulted in more than $7 million in fines against 3,000 employers for violations involving more than 23,000 minors -- stung the restaurant industry.
"The Labor Department used a lot of fiery rhetoric and publicity, making it sound like we were running some modern-day sweatshop," said Larry Wilhelm, president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. "That's just not a true picture of what's happening."
In many cases, it's a matter of minors working an hour or two more in the week because they want to or because of an emergency, explained Mr. Wilhelm, who operates the Friendly Farms restaurant in Carroll County.
"All the publicity about the inspections certainly got people to thinking about the law," he said. "I'm sure the numbers [of violations] are going to go down because of it."
But the restaurant industry wants the government to update the rules that have been on the books for 50 years, Mr. Wilhelm said.
It also wants the agency to clarify differing interpretations of the rules and to iron out the conflicts between federal and state child labor laws, he said.
"The rules are complicated and can be very confusing," especially for small businesses that don't have enough adult employees to schedule and keep minors from potential violations, he said.
Some jobs are prohibited for 14-year-olds, and others for 15- or 16-year-olds, he noted, while youths between 16 and 18 can't have more than 12 hours combined school and work in a 24-hour period.
In addition, employers have to deal with conflicting state and federal regulations on child labor, Mr. Wilhelm said.
For example, Maryland allows minors under 16 to work 23 hours a week during the school year, while the federal limit is 18 hours. The state allows work by these 14- and 15-year-olds until 8 p.m. during the school year; the federal limit is 7 p.m.
"We are required to follow whatever law is most advantageous to the employee, but we are not attorneys," he said, noting that more than three-quarters of the restaurant industry consists of small businesses.
Because the restaurant's busiest time is 7 p.m., it's hard to justify hiring a minor under 16 who has to quit at that hour, he said. Keeping the 18-hour weekly limit on younger employees but allowing them to work until 9 p.m. would not be unreasonable, he said.
The food service business is the largest employer of minors, especially since the boom in fast-food outlets during the past three decades, and it is the most common first job for many youths.
But restaurant owners say they are trying to avoid hiring younger vTC employees because of the stricter enforcement of misunderstood rules. The state association is promoting member efforts to recruit displaced homemakers and retirees to fill vacancies.
"My general manager has directions not to hire people under 18 if he can avoid it," Mr. Wilhelm said, although the tight labor market makes hiring minors a must.
John Schulze, whose firm operates 31 Pizza Hut franchises in Maryland, has a similar hiring goal because of the various complications with child labor and alcoholic beverage laws.
"I won't even let my 16-year-old son work there," he said. His 18-year-old daughter, no longer a minor, is working without difficulty at one store.
"I don't think this problem is going to go away completely because of the large number of minors employed by the [restaurant] industry," he added.
More reasonable rules would help both employers and youths who want to work, Mr. Schulze said. Firms can now be cited for allowing minors to use the same equipment they use at home, such as a kitchen knife or a power lawn mower, he pointed out.
Bill King, who operates the Crab Shanty in Ellicott City, said he only hires students who are at least 16 and keeps them out of the kitchen, where the work rules are complicated.
"We haven't had any problem if they are 16 or older," he said, adding that he has tutored several of his school-age employees to help them improve their grades.