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Fast-food chains are the worst offenders when it comes to child-labor violations—and it’s not even close

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While most people aren’t looking, state politicians are debating how young the youngest in our workforce should be. 

“How young is too young to be a child worker” is unfortunately a question we’re still debating in the 21st century. And Republican- and Democratic-governed states have different visions of this—vastly different. 

Though the concept is nothing new, it’s gaining steam and poised to potentially become a permanent feature of the economy of the 2020s. “Child labor remains a key issue in state houses across the country in 2024,” Nina Mast, state economic analyst for the progressive, union-affiliated think tank Economic Policy Institute, told Fortune. “While the industry-backed movement to weaken child-labor protections continues to make progress, lawmakers and advocates for youth are fighting back in an increasing number of states.” 

Mast is alluding to her think tank’s research showing that one particular industry overwhelmingly benefits from ambiguities in the federal laws governing child labor, to which many red states have responded by loosening regulations and lowering age limits. 

That one industry is fast food.

This past January alone, eight states “introduced or took new actions” on proposed legislation that would reduce child-labor protections, per EPI research. These proposed laws involve children working more hours without breaks (and longer during their school weeks), clocking into factory or roofing jobs with dangerous conditions, or even looking after other children younger than themselves “without direct supervision.” 

Since 2021, there have been attempts at legislation in 28 states to pierce holes in child-labor protections. As of 2024, 14 states have introduced counter legislation made to bolster child-labor protections, per EPI. This is at times contradictory, with the same states trying to introduce laws that roll back and bolster child-labor protections. 

Even the jobs that don’t necessarily violate the law are targeting a vulnerable group. “We can’t ignore that—as a result of longstanding exemptions in US labor law—agriculture is the deadliest industry for young workers (accounting for over half of work-related fatalities even though it employs a small share of children), though they may not be employed in violation of child labor laws,” Mast said.

The minimum guidelines for youth employment were set decades ago, in 1938, as part of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Even so, many of the current policies on child and teen labor remain contested state by state as FLSA doesn’t cover everything like the hours older teens can work, or the permits needed for certain jobs

Many of the new laws regarding child labor, Mast says, are focused on “increasing penalties, mandating workers’ rights education, and expanding the legal remedies available to victims of illegal child labor.” And Mast notes there’s a “concerning trend” of young employees working in treacherous jobs such as roofing and meatpacking

As sectors like the childcare industry grapple with shortages due to insufficient pay and grueling hours, politicians turn to the children themselves. Many of the fields where teens have traditionally been employed are dealing with staffing issues. 

Unsurprisingly, the field that had some of the highest turnover during the Great Resignation is also the largest employer of youth: Leisure and hospitality hires the most children, outpacing all other industries, Mast told Fortune, and within hospitality it’s restaurants, and within restaurant’s it’s fast food. As Mast’s analysis says: “Child labor violations in the food industry, most often in the form of hours violations for 14-15 year-olds, have skyrocketed over the past ten years and have been driven by restaurants that operate on a franchise model.”

Industrial times or not, America still runs on child labor

Famed fast-food companies like McDonald’s and Popeyes have come under fire recently, representing a larger surge in the field’s violation of child-labor laws by making teens work more extended days and operate hazardous kitchen equipment. 

When contacted for comment, McDonald’s told Fortune that its 2,000-plus network of franchisees, operating as independent small business owners, make their own hiring decisions on their restaurant teams. It also noted the large scope of people employed both by the company and franchisees—over 800,000 people at nearly 14,000 restaurants.

For its part, McDonald’s said it “provides ongoing training opportunities and resources – such as recommended best practices around hiring, scheduling and restaurant safety – to help franchisees ensure compliance with minor labor laws” and said it takes every Department of Labor violation seriously.

“We do not believe these complaints reflect the experience of the vast majority of teenage crew members, who are working at McDonald’s restaurants in age-appropriate roles and looking for meaningful jobs in their local communities,” the company said.

Popeye’s did not respond to requests for comment.

When introducing a law that would loosen federal protections by extending work hours for teenaged workers ages 14 to 15, U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) said the following: “If a teen can participate in a basketball game until 9 p.m. on a school night, they should also have the option to work a part-time job if they want to.” What Johnson doesn’t mention is that these jobs can be taxing, involve low pay, require working hours way past 9 p.m. on a weekday, and bear dangerous conditions not even close to said intramural sports. 

Outsourcing labor to a vulnerable group also has potential effects on the rights of the workforce as a whole. The mentality is: Why pay an adult what they’re worth if you can get a desperate child to do the job cheaper? 

“The consequences are potentially disastrous,” Reid Maki, director of the Child Labor Coalition, told the Associated Press. “You can’t balance a perceived labor shortage on the backs of teen workers.”

During a time of high inflation, Americans have embraced their reputation for loving fast food, turning even more to the relatively cheap fries-and-burger combo. Dining out and going out is not just more expensive, it’s also more socially taxing as many people continue to prefer more solitary habits long after the lockdown was first issued four years ago. Perhaps our pandemic-fueled introversion and inflation-era budgeting have only added fire to the fast-food industry. But while we lean more on these chains, they lean more on children, the not-so-secret purveyors of your next milkshakes.

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