WESTMINSTER — Tenth-grader Stephanie Martin of Taylorsville has joined thousands of teen workers nationwide who are getting a stiff lesson in corporateAmerica.
Hardee's fast-food restaurant, reacting to tougher laborlaws, fired Martin, 15; 10 co-workers and about 2,000 other young teens from their jobs as cashiers and cooks.
"They are discriminating against our age," said Martin, who worked nine months at the 140 Village Shopping Center Hardee's. "I was trying to save for college."
The workers are victims of the chain's new policy of eliminating all workers under 16 and banning 14- and 15-year-olds from employment in the future.
Hardee's, the nation's third largest fast-food chain, is reacting to increased fines mandatedby Congress for violations of child labor laws and changes sparked by a U.S. Labor Department crackdown last year. The laws limit the number of hours younger teens can work.
The tenfold increase in fines-- for violations occurring after March 1 -- could affect any business with workers under 18. Restaurants are especially vulnerable because they employ about a third of the nation's working youth.
"The Department of Labor is becoming the department of unlabor," said John D. Merritt, spokesman for Hardee's Food Systems Inc., based in Rocky Mount, N.C. "It is engineering the disemployment of 14- and 15-year-olds."
Last fall, Congress, at the urging of the Labor Department, agreed to increase fines for child labor violations from a maximum of$1,000 per offense to $10,000.
"Those fines could put us out of business," said Merritt, who alleged that the higher penalty was a thinly veiled effort to increase government revenue. The layoffs took effect Friday.
Helene Melzer, a public affairs officer for the employment standards division of the Labor Department, said blaming layoffs on her department is unjustified.
"They are in violation and they want to blame the department," she said. "You can't have kids who are school age working" longer than allowed by law.
Federal laws prohibit children under 16 from working past 7 p.m. on school nights and from working more than 18 hours per week. Workers who are 16 and 17have fewer restrictions and are therefore exempt from Hardee's new policy. All restrictions are relaxed from June to September, while schools are in recess.
Hardee's policy does not affect individually owned franchises, such as the Sullivan Road and Cranberry Mall eateries, which set their own policies.
Martin and her young co-workers said they feel caught between the government and big business.
"Some kids are out running around cruising around the streets and people complain about that," Martin's mother, Linda, said.