The owner of specialty markets located in Scarborough and New Hampshire has paid more than $27,000 in civil penalties for violating child labor laws, but said the offenses are the results of pressure to find workers during a pandemic, along with a misunderstanding.

“I should have checked,” said Abel Schultze, owner of the markets, both named On The Vine, with locations at 591 Route 1 in Scarborough and Exeter, N.H. He has been running his shop in Exeter for 16 years, and the Scarborough location for nearly six years.

According to a July 13 statement from the U.S. Department of Labor, the markets allegedly employed 11 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds — one at the Scarborough location — and allowed employees under the age of 18 in Scarborough to clean what the statement referred to as “power-driven meat mixers and grinders.”

According to the statement, federal law “limits the number of hours youth under the age of 16 can work to no more than three hours on school days or eight hours on non-school days, and not past 7 p.m. between the day after Labor Day and May 31.”

“I had 15-year-olds because we were in a pandemic,” Schultze in a phone interview from Exeter Wednesday.

He said the workers in question were not in school at the time due to the pandemic, and he was struggling to find workers to help keep his shops open.

Schultze, a third-generation butcher from Eliot, insisted he would never allow younger employees to handle dangerous equipment. He said the department’s case refers to his workers using a Cryovac machine, an industrial version of the same vacuum sealers some people have in their homes.

“A microwave is more harmful than a Cryovac machine,” he said.

Nevertheless, Schultze said, the machine qualifies as equipment that cannot be handled by workers under age 18.

“I didn’t realize,” he said.

Schultze said he has cooperated with investigators, and is just trying to put the incident behind him.

“I’m just trying to sell a quality product,” he said.

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