You can’t find workers to staff your business. What do you do?

The question has tormented American employers for the past few years. The labor shortage has cannibalized profit margins, eaten into production and service capacity and ultimately forced many operations to close down altogether.

In response, there have been loud calls for reform to work authorization rules. Companies have engaged in financial acrobatics to create unlikely signing bonuses, bumped-up starting wages and other perks. The worker, labor economists say, has newfound power.

Unfortunately, that’s not true of every worker.

Across the country, violations of child labor law are on the rise. Desperate times can call for desperate measures, and it appears many employers have taken rule-bending too far.

According to the federal wage regulator – which governs when, for how long and what kind of jobs minors can do at work –  there’s been a 50% increase in child labor violations since 2018. In New York City, violations went up by a whopping 68% last year alone.


According to reporting by Bloomberg, child safety advocates have met with the U.S. Department of Labor’s wage regulator four times in recent months, seeking updates to standards and rules that they say haven’t been appropriately reviewed since the 1970s.

Between lack of attention to detail during busy months and willful exploitation of exceptionally vulnerable young people in treacherous conditions, the violations reported on in the last couple of years appear to run the gamut. Here in Maine, the most recent high-profile violations have put business owners in the former category.

Earlier this week, the Press Herald reported that C Salt, a family-owned gourmet market and coffee shop in Cape Elizabeth, allowed minors to work overtime and carry out hazardous tasks on the job (working with power-driven meat slicers and manual deep-fat fry baskets). On top of $36,000 in wage restoration and damages, C Salt paid almost $15,000 in civil penalties for the child labor violations.

Last July the Maine Department of Labor cited the Quarry Taproom, a restaurant in downtown Hallowell, for about 700 child labor violations involving “about a dozen” workers over a two-year period. While the total fine came to more than $170,000, once the owners adhered to the terms of  a settlement agreement, the state Department of Labor brought the penalty down to $17,000.

“We tend to get a little busy during the summer,” owner Steven Lachance told the Kennebec Journal. “We were looking for additional workers, and were able to find them with these young kids, who were willing to step up, get off the couch and earn a wage for themselves, which is pretty impressive.”

In an extremely tight labor market, the young kids have been impressive indeed. Last July, this editorial board wrote in praise of Maine’s young workers; we saluted the thousands of 14- and 15-year-olds with fresh work permits for picking up the – considerable – slack.

But there’s nothing to be proud of if our employers do not keep up their side of the bargain.

All young workers have to be treated fairly. Their working hours must be carefully tracked and, no matter their enthusiasm, their responsibilities kept in check.

There’s a role for parents, schools and communities to play in paying close attention to what’s going on. The heightened enforcement promised by the Biden administration will go some way toward rooting out illegal practices, whether deliberate or incidental. The rest is up to us.

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