Hardee's settles Md. suit, will pay fired teen-agers Issue of bias against young workers put off

September 28, 1993|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Staff Writer

A controversy that has roiled the job market for 14- and 15-year-old Marylanders was extended for at least a year yesterday, as Hardee's Food Systems Inc. settled charges that its no-young-teens hiring rule violated state laws against age discrimination.

On the morning that testimony was supposed to begin again in the widely watched case, Hardee's agreed to make small back-pay awards to the 120 Maryland workers under the age of 16 whom it fired as a part of its decision to stop employing young teen-agers.

The Rocky Mount, N.C.-based fast-food chain also agreed to join the Maryland Human Relations Commission, which brought the age-discrimination case, in a yearlong review of whether the policy of no young teen workers violates Maryland's age-discrimination law.

In 1991, after receiving several federal fines for allowing young teen-agers to work past the federal work curfew of 7 p.m., Hardee's fired all 2,000 of its workers under the age of 16 across the country, claiming it wasn't worth the risk of fines to employ them.

Only Hardee's Maryland workers will be affected by yesterday's settlement. The federal anti-discrimination law, and most other states' laws, prohibit discrimination against people over the age of 40. Maryland's law, however, prohibits discrimination based on any age.

Restaurateurs and children's rights advocates praised the settlement.

The state's prosecution of the company had put employers in a no-win bind, they said, and the settlement offers hope that the conflict between the state and federal laws may be resolved informally.

Many restaurants in Maryland and nationwide have stopped hiring workers under age 16 because of restrictive federal hour and task rules, said Marcia Harris, spokeswoman for the Maryland Restaurant Association.

"They are not allowed to work one minute past 7, and that falls right in the middle of the dinner hour. . . . You can be fined tens of thousands of dollars for technical violations," of the child-labor laws, Ms. Harris said.

The state's action seemed to tell employers that they could be fined for employing young teens, and fined for not employing them, she said.

"This is an issue of grave concern," she said.

Ms. Harris said her organization will participate in the review of the conflict between the state and federal laws, and is hopeful the controversy can be resolved informally.

Dorianne Beyer, general counsel of the New York-based National Child Labor Committee, which is not involved in the case, said that while her group lauds the state for protecting young teens' rights, Maryland had probably gone beyond the "common sense application" of the law in charging Hardee's.

The federal government's protective rules should reduce job opportunities for young teens, she said, because the youngsters' first priority should be school.

Sally Swann, the MHRC attorney who was prosecuting the case, said she was pleased with the settlement and would make a "good faith effort" to resolve the conflict between the laws in the review.

But, she said, she reserves the right to prosecute similar age-discrimination cases if the state decides Hardee's or any other employer is improperly discriminating against young teens.

Ms. Swann said she was concerned that Maryland teen-agers are being punished simply because employers such as Hardee's are afraid they will inadvertently violate child-labor laws.

Michael Lynch, Hardee's attorney, said the company was glad to resolve, at least temporarily, its "Catch-22 situation."

"Restaurants need maximum flexibility in their work force" and can't afford to hire people who may have to leave in the middle of a dinner rush or can't pitch in to help at the grill, he said.

As a part of the settlement, most of the fired youngsters will receive payments of $100 apiece. The two Maryland youngsters who filed formal discrimination complaints and started the case, Stephanie Martin and John Hein Jr., will share a total of $4,800 in back pay.

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