U.S. Labor Department crackdowns on child labor violations and an expanding pool of unemployed older workers have caused many restaurants in Maryland and around the country to stop hiring youths under age 16.
Meanwhile, child labor violations in the food service industry are likely to continue until antiquated federal laws are changed, restaurant operators admit.
Under federal law, 14- and 15-year-olds can work only 18 hours a week and have to stop work at 7 p.m. -- the middle of the busy dinner period -- during the school year.
That is the most common type of child labor violations -- the kind of violations that recently tripped up the Nebraska restaurant chain of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bob Kerrey.
His seven restaurants were fined $64,000 by the Labor Department for 116 violations, more than 100 of which were for overworking employees under 16.
The chain's operating officer, Dean Rasmussen, said he would appeal the fines. But he fired 20 employees younger than 16 and said he would no longer hire the younger teens.
A survey of a half-dozen fast-food outlets in the Baltimore area found managers doing much the same, turning down anyone under 16 while keeping out the "help wanted" signs for older workers.
"The more red tape you have to go through, the quicker you're going to decide it's not worth it -- it's that simple," said John Schulze, president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
His Pizza Hut franchise chain has not hired teen-agers younger than 16 for several years in order to effectively schedule staff. But Mr. Schulze believes the recessionary economy, with more people competing for jobs, has led to the current displacement of the younger teens, rather than fear of Labor Department inspectors.
When the economy improves, younger teen-agers will again be in demand for entry-level jobs with many restaurants, he predicted.
Some national fast-food chains have taken steps to bar youths under 16 as a result of the federal crackdown.
Hardee's fired more than 2,000 youngsters this year because they were under 16 years old.
"There are a lot of kids out there who want to work and who need to work in our restaurants," said John D. Merritt of Hardee's Food Systems Inc.
But the potential fines -- which increased tenfold last fall to a maximum $10,000 -- "could put us out of business," he explained, accusing the Labor Department of "engineering the disemployment of 14- and 15-year-olds."
Domino's Pizza is refusing to hire anyone under 18 and has largely replaced its under-18 employees.
Burger King, whose establishments were particularly hard hit by fines during publicized Labor Department sweeps last year, adopted a policy to not hire workers younger than 16 at its company stores. But the chain has 4,600 franchisees who are free to set their own hiring policies, noted spokesman Michael Evans.
"I don't think this problem is going to go away completely because of the large number of minors employed by the industry," said Mr. Schulze.
Minors under age 18 make up an estimated 25 percent of the food service work force. But the persistent unemployment problem has enabled restaurateurs to hire more adult workers, or at least more teen-agers older than 15, for whom the rules are not as strict.
"These rules are more than 50 years old, and they should be changed to more accurately reflect the real-life conditions of teen-age employment in the U.S. today," says lobbyist Mark Gorman of the National Restaurant Association.
The trade group, which represents about 150,000 food service establishments, prefers the term "teen-age employment" to counter the sweatshop image of "child labor."
The association wants the laws modified to allow teen-agers under 16 to work until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. to get through the dinner period, to allow for more hours to be worked on weekends when the labor need is greatest, and to modify some prohibited-equipment orders that would not endanger youths, Mr. Gorman said.
"It really is a risk to hire 14- and 15-year-olds, and a lot of business people in our industry have decided it isn't worth the public black eye or, secondarily, the monetary fines" from Labor Department inspections, Mr. Gorman said.
The result is a lack of valuable work experience for many teen-agers who want employment, he added.
Youth employment overall is noticeably down in Maryland this year. Work permits issued by the state to minors [age 14 to 17] dropped by more than 20 percent this year, from 75,000 to projected 59,000. The number of permits for 14- and 15-year-olds plunged by 40 percent in 1991.
"This probably reflects the economy," said Ileana O'Brien, deputy labor commissioner. More unemployed adults are competing for entry-level jobs, and teen-agers with jobs are not changing employers [which requires a new permit], she observed.
"I'm sure that increased federal enforcement of child labor standards is also having an impact on employers not hiring 14- and 15-year-olds," she added.