Age bias at the fast-food counter

July 20, 1993

Maryland's Human Relations Commission has taken up the cause of teen-agers who lost their jobs because their employer worried he would inadvertently violate child-labor laws. It was a predictable result of the U.S. Labor Department's publicized inspection sweeps in 1990-91 of fast-food restaurants, where under-16-year-olds commonly work.

The Maryland commission's complaint was filed against Hardee's restaurant chain, which allegedly fired some 2,000 workers nationwide who were 14 or 15 years old. Maryland's law protects all workers from age discrimination, unlike the federal statute covering only those over 40 years of age.

The state action can only recover back pay for the two complainants (who are now over 16). But it probably can't force employers to hire under-16 workers, even if the restaurant chain publicly agrees not to discriminate. Nor should it.

Thousands of businesses were cited for child-labor violations by federal inspectors; many violations were technical but others were willful and dangerous abuses, demanding stiff fines. Child labor, in fact, typically gets little enforcement attention from regulators; the high profile sweeps aimed to make up for, or mask, that inactivity.

It seems clearly unfair for an employer to fire an employee simply because the company does not feel capable of observing the laws governing that employee's work. It's the same kind of abdication of responsibility that was once evidenced in the workplace by firing pregnant women, handicapped employees and older workers.

There's also no reason why youths under 16 must be hired by any business. Child-labor laws aim at restricting employment of youths in full-time jobs: limiting hours, types of jobs and the conditions under which children may work. That automatically makes 16-year-olds, and 18-year-olds with no restrictions, more desirable for the purpose of employer flexibility and staff control.

The demand in the 1980s for younger workers was purely economic: they were plentiful and willing to work for less than adults. That trend has begun to reverse, as a result of the economic slowdown and as more adults are seeking work. The under-16 population is declining. Renewed child-labor enforcement is only part of the reason.

Any business that can figure the cost of a hamburger to the half-cent can carefully control the working conditions of its staff. If younger workers are hired in good faith, they are entitled to the full protections of law, including those against age discrimination. But there is no reason why private business should be forced to hire young teen-agers if older job applicants can legally work longer hours and in less-restrictive conditions.

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