Teen workers face risks, experts say

January 11, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

PALATINE, ILL — PALATINE, Ill. -- The explosion of the nation's fast-food industry and its heavy reliance on teen-age workers has put money in teens' pockets but also exposed them, experts said, to school problems, job-related injuries and crime.

"We don't employ kids during the safe hours. We employ them at night when it is the most dangerous," said Tom Geoghegan, a Chicago lawyer and an activist on child labor issues.

zTC Two teen-age workers who were closing a Brown's Chicken & Pasta outlet in Palatine Friday night were among the victims of a mass killing in the restaurant.

Of the nation's 5.5 million workers 18 years and younger, about 40 percent work in restaurants and fast-food operations, according to Joseph Kinney, director of the National Safe Workplace Institute in Chicago.

Teen-agers are working longer and later hours at the restaurants,Mr. Kinney and other experts said, and that has exposed them to a variety of potential dangers.

Government statistics show that the number of teen-agers seeking workers compensation for on-the-job injuries has increased dramatically.

Experts also said a number of studies and government investigations point to widespread violations of child labor laws.

Last fall, Burger King Corp., the nation's second largest fast-food chain, agreed to a record $500,000 settlement with the federal government for violating restrictions on the hours worked by youths younger than 16.

According to a 1938 federal law, 14- and 15-year-olds can work only three hours a day and a maximum of 18 hours a week when school is in session. They also are limited to working from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the school year.

Burger King, based in Miami, was accused by the federal government of illegally requiring young teen-agers to work later and longer than permissible at nearly all the 800 company-owned stores.

During the same crackdown, the government filed charges against others among the leaders of the nation's fast-food industry, including Arby's, McDonald's, Taco Bell, Jack in the Box and Sizzler Steakhouse.

Saying the government has failed to protect workers 16 years and older, child labor activist Geoghegan said the National Safe Workplace Institute was considering a lawsuit to require the U.S. Labor Department to offer more protection.

Specifically, his group wants the government to limit 16- to 18-year-olds from working more than 25 hours a week in unsupervised, late-night conditions.

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