Fast-food Giants Overwork Teenagers, Driving America’s Child Labor Crisis

John Tully for The Washington Post
Tyler Karpinsky, at his apartment in Rutland last month, was 15 when he got a job in 2018 at a McDonald’s in town operated by Coughlin Inc. Sometimes he worked for more than three hours on school nights, the federal limit for workers that age.

The fast-food industry is fueling a surge in child labor violations across the United States, especially at companies with franchised locations such as McDonald’s, Sonic and Chick-fil-A, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal data.

Since the widespread labor shortages of the pandemic, fast-food companies have illegally scheduled thousands of teenagers to work late and long hours and to operate dangerous kitchen equipment, The Post found. In some cases, companies have hired children 13 or younger – violating 1930s-era laws designed to protect their safety and educational opportunities. Federal law prohibits 14- and 15-year-olds from working past 7 p.m. and more than three hours on school nights.

Overall, child labor violations have more than tripled in the past 10 years, with violations in food service increasing almost sixfold, according to The Post’s analysis of U.S. Labor Department data. In the first nine months of 2023, agency officials found more than 4,700 teenagers under 18 working in violation of federal child labor laws – more than three-quarters of those in food service.

Minors ages 14 and 15 who work longer or later hours than legally permitted made up nearly three-quarters of the federal violations in food service between 2020 and the end of September.

In 2018, Tyler Karpinsky got a job at age 15 at a Vermont McDonald’s that was later cited by the Labor Department for overworking teenagers.

Initially, Karpinsky intended to save up for a trip to Europe with his mom. But his pay – around $11 an hour – ended up helping his family with heating bills, groceries and other utilities. Soon, he was working for more than three hours on school nights, he said – missing dozens of assignments, dozing off in class, tanking his grades and threatening his college prospects.

Major chains that depend on the franchise business model have much higher rates of violations than those that don’t, such as restaurant companies that primarily own and operate their own stores, The Post found. Franchise-heavy McDonald’s, for example, has averaged 15 violations per 100 stores since 2020, ranking among brands with the highest rates of violations – though none were found at its corporate-owned stores. Franchised models may have higher rates of child labor violations because they’re under pressure to limit labor costs to offset steep fees, labor experts say.

McDonald’s USA called child labor violations rare, saying in a statement that they don’t reflect the experience of most teenagers working in “age-appropriate roles and looking for meaningful jobs in their local communities.”

Dairy Queen, Little Caesars, Zaxby’s and Wendy’s have also had some of the industry’s highest numbers of violations per store since 2020. All of the top companies are franchised brands that license out operation of their stores to small business owners. Three smaller chains – Slim Chickens, Marco’s Pizza and Tropical Smoothie Cafe – had violation rates similar to or higher than McDonald’s, because they all had at least one location with dozens of violations.

“These are serious violations of the law,” said David Weil, a former Labor Department official and current professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. “These laws are not simply arbitrary. They’re built around the fact that, as a society, we want children first and foremost to get educated so that they can live a life where they have the skills and training to have good jobs.”

The Biden administration has launched an initiative to crack down on child labor violators, but the number of federal investigators tasked with enforcing child labor laws is at a near-record low. Labor Department wage and hour administrator Jessica Looman said the agency’s enforcement data does “not provide a comprehensive picture of national child labor conditions and practices at any point in time,” reflecting only the outcome of its investigations, meaning the true number of violations could be significantly higher.

In most cases, employers pay a fine for each child labor violation, with a maximum penalty of $15,138 per child for cases that do not involve death or serious injury. However, the Labor Department has said that these penalties are not high enough to deter highly profitable companies from breaking the law. The Post also found that some specific fast-food franchisees – a number of which own multiple locations – repeatedly violated child labor laws.

Enforcement of child labor laws is a joint responsibility, with the Labor Department working with state agencies. But powerful restaurant industry lobbyists are pushing to roll back state child labor laws, in some cases below federal standards, The Post found. In five states, local affiliates of the National Restaurant Association have recently lobbied for laws that would either extend hours or times of day that teens can legally work or lower the age requirements for serving alcohol below 18 years. Legislation that would weaken existing child labor laws has been introduced in 19 states over the past three years often as an industry-backed solution to labor shortages.

Child labor violations have ballooned amid a historically tight labor market that emerged after the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Millions of service sector workers abandoned riskier, public-facing jobs at fast-food chains and other restaurants for better-paying and less-grueling opportunities. Teenagers stepped up to fill the gap, marking a generational shift in attitudes toward working in high school. As inflation soared, many teenagers said, they wanted to help their families pay skyrocketing rent, groceries and utility bills.

The Post spoke with nine former fast-food workers who said they worked jobs that violated either federal or state child labor laws, often to help their families. They described competing pressures of wanting to help make ends meet at home while trying to keep up in school.

“At some point I did start falling behind in class, as I only had a five-hour window to sleep,” said Nayely Hernandez, a former McDonald’s worker in East Los Angeles, whose managers kept her working as late as 1 a.m. on school nights when she was 17, violating California law. McDonald’s referred requests for comment to the franchise owner. The franchise owner says the allegations that Hernandez was overworked are unfounded.

John Tully for The Washington Post
Mill River Union High School, in North Clarendon, Vt., where Tyler Karpinsky attended. He said his grades fell as he missed dozens of assignments and dozed off in class after taking the McDonald’s job.

Karpinsky got his job at McDonald’s – his first – as a high school freshman in Rutland, Vt., two years before the Labor Department started investigating the store. His managers sometimes kept him running the cash register and taking drive-through orders for longer than three hours on school nights, in violation of federal labor laws. Managers would ask him to stay late when someone had called off.

Karpinsky said he “thought it was normal.” But “I was scared that I wouldn’t have a high enough GPA [to go to college] by the time I graduated,” he said, adding that he worried he would have to join the military.

Coughlin Inc., the operator of the McDonald’s where Karpinsky worked, ranks among the highest in child labor violations for food service employers nationwide, according to The Post’s analysis. The franchisee, a major operator in New England, paid $109,000 in 2022 for violations at nine stores in New Hampshire and Vermont, including one where Karpinsky worked.

The violations included allowing more than 140 employees ages 14 and 15 to work beyond legal hours and to use manually operated deep-fat fryers and ovens, according to the Labor Department. Two kids were burned.

Owner Charles Coughlin said his company now conducts regular audits to make sure minors are not working beyond legal hours and has retrained supervisors on child labor laws. The company also has enhanced protocols for identifying employees under the age of 18.

Labor experts say that franchised chains have higher rates of violations than corporate-run chains because they are less invested in preserving a brand’s reputation. They are also under pressure to keep labor costs low to make up for steep operating costs, especially franchise fees, which can range from $20,000 to $100,000 or more for multiple locations.

“The franchise model is a major factor in child labor violations because it incentivizes a race to the bottom in terms of labor standards,” said Nina Mast, an economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute who researches child labor laws.

Roughly 90 percent of McDonald’s stores are owned by franchisees, according to the McDonald’s website. The fast-food giant has racked up more than 2,300 violations since 2013, but McDonald’s said that number is small considering it has nearly 14,000 stores and employs some 800,000 workers nationwide.

The fast-food giant said it provides training opportunities and resources, including for best practices about safety, hiring and scheduling, “to help franchisees ensure compliance with minor [child] labor laws and provide enriching employment experiences to young people seeking them.”

Slim Chickens, a chain with 176 locations, had the highest rate of child labor violations, in The Post’s analysis. One single Colorado-based franchisee was cited for 30 instances of 14- and 15-year-olds working illegal hours.

Slim Chickens spokesperson Julie Maw said, “Being part of an industry that serves as a training ground for so many young people’s first jobs, we take these matters to heart,” adding that Slim Chickens is “working to assist our independent franchisees to understand the requirements of the applicable child labor laws in the jurisdictions in which they operate.”

Maw noted that, out of the four Slim Chickens franchisees that have been cited for child labor violations, three no longer hire anyone under 16. The fourth now gives additional oversight to employees under 16 to ensure the law is being followed.

Similarly, Marco’s Pizza and Tropical Smoothie Cafe had a few franchises with a particularly high number of violations. The companies’ responses to the findings of high rates of child labor violations are here.

By contrast, Starbucks, the second-largest food service chain in the country, which owns or licenses all of its more-than-16,000 U.S. stores, has received no federal child labor citations since 2013. The company also has a policy of not hiring anyone under 16 outside of Montana.

Among the largest restaurant chains that do not use the franchise model – Chipotle, Panda Express, Cracker Barrel, In-N-Out Burger, Shake Shack, Sweetgreen, White Castle and Boston Market – federal child labor violations at corporate-run stores have totaled just 32 since 2013, The Post found.

Michael Layman, senior vice president of government relations and public affairs at the International Franchise Association, a powerful trade group, defended the franchise business model, saying they work closely with the Labor Department on “compliance and education.”

“Industries from pet services to printing use the franchise model, and these businesses work every day to provide meaningful employment opportunities to develop employment skills within the confines of the law,” Layman said.

Last year, a coalition of McDonald’s shareholders, many of whom oversee public pension funds, demanded that McDonald’s adopt a zero-tolerance policy in its global brand standards for child labor violations and conduct an outside audit of child labor practices. Labor attorneys say companies have resisted such moves because they don’t want to be responsible for franchise violations.

“[Franchised brands] really want to limit their liability,” said Laura Padin, an attorney at the National Employment Law Project. “But they could easily set standards and impose consequences.”

McDonald’s said it would ask its U.S. franchisees this year to provide feedback on the employment of minors in their stores to determine whether additional training or resources would be helpful for them, as part of the company’s brand standards in the United States.

Among the 10 restaurant franchisees with the most reported violations since 2020, five were McDonald’s restaurant owners, including Coughlin Inc. Data shows that those five franchisees committed 44 percent of the child labor violations found at McDonald’s since 2020, even as investigations examined a variety of franchisees. Weil, the former Labor Department official, describes these as instances of “super noncompliance” usually found at companies that “cut corners” as part of their business model.

A sweeping investigation concluded in May 2023 discovered 305 minors working in violation of laws at three Kentucky-based McDonald’s franchisees, which paid nearly $213,000 in fines. For example, Bauer Food LLC was cited for working two 10-year-olds as late as 2 a.m.; the children were not paid. A Bauer Food spokesperson said the 10-year-olds were the children of a night manager who directed any work the children may have done, which was not approved by franchisee management or leadership.

In Coralville, Iowa, D of S Foods was fined $128,500 in 2022 for having 186 minors work illegal hours at a McDonald’s, Labor Department records show. The franchisee is no longer in business, records show.

Minors employed in violation of child labor laws hit a record high in 2001, when the teen labor force participation rate was also higher. The more recent resurgence of child labor violations began in 2016. An influx of unaccompanied minors from Latin America in 2014 and again in 2021 contributed to an increase in child labor violations, due to young people looking for work to support themselves and their families and to pay off smuggling fees. Also, the tighter labor market has enticed teenagers into the workforce, driving up the prevalence of child labor violations.

The higher rate of workers rotating through jobs after the pandemic, also known as the Great Resignation, could also be playing a role. Paul DeCamp, a lawyer for employers and former Labor Department official, said when turnover is high, employers in food service struggle to maintain a group of managers and supervisors who are “well versed in the minutiae of the rules.”

In June, a group of teens filed a complaint with the California Labor Commissioner’s Office about working excessive hours at one McDonald’s in East Los Angeles. California is among states that regulate hours for all high school students under 18 years old, prohibiting work past 10 p.m. and more than four hours on school nights.

“We want to work, but we don’t want to work during school hours,” the teens wrote.

Among them was Sebastian Marek, who was hired at 17 amid worries about his family losing their house. A high school senior in 2022, Marek was regularly scheduled to work six-hour days on school nights. He missed 26 days of school and racked up 70 late arrivals that school year at East College Prep, school records show, and his grades suffered so much that he feared the University of Nevada at Las Vegas would rescind his early acceptance.

“When I told the manager, Teresa, that I wanted to work less hours because I needed more time to sleep and study, she told me . . . that it was my fault that I couldn’t keep up with school and work,” Marek wrote in the complaint filed by the Service Employees International Union’s Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign.

A McDonald’s work schedule that was included in the complaint shows Nayely Hernandez, who in 2022 was 17 and a high school senior working at the East L.A. franchise, scheduled to work around eight hours a day on three school days and until 11:30 p.m. on a school night. At one point, Hernandez says, her managers scheduled her to work three times in one month clashing with her day of in-person class at City of Angels School, even though her manager had a copy of her work permit that prohibited them from doing so, she said.

Hernandez missed so much school that she graduated a semester later than planned.

“It does make me think that, because this was my first job, every job is like this,” she said.

In a statement to The Post, Matthew Tulaphorn, owner of the East L.A. franchise, called all of the allegations of illegal child labor “unfounded.”

“We take our responsibility as a local employer in the East L.A. community seriously,” he wrote. “It’s important to us that all our employees have a safe and respectful work environment.”

While lawmakers in Congress and a handful of states have pushed to increase child labor protections, 19 states are in the process of rolling back their child labor laws by extending legal work hours, lowering age requirements for serving alcohol and eliminating age verification and parental permission requirements, among other changes.

In May, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) signed a bill that extends how late 14- and 15-year-olds can work on school nights from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and allows children as young as 14 to take previously prohibited jobs in industrial laundries, roofing and demolition.

Iowa Restaurant Association President Jessica Dunker, whose group lobbied to extend teen work hours, said her group has heard feedback that the law has raised pay for minors and allowed teenagers to take on server positions in restaurants. Teens also can work longer shifts on fewer days, Dunker said, “freeing up additional weeknights for school.”

Other affiliates of the National Restaurant Association also have thrown their support behind bills in New Hampshire, Idaho and Ohio, where an association lobbyist testified that extending work hours for teens would reduce their screen time.

Most recently, the association’s Florida affiliate has supported a bill advancing through the state legislature that would eliminate all existing caps on work hours for 16- and 17-year-olds, allowing them to work overnight on school days. The bill was drafted by a conservative think tank that has pushed to weaken child labor protections in multiple states.

At a hearing on the bill in mid-December, state Rep. Linda Chaney (R), the bill’s sponsor, said teens “want to work.” Her proposal “gets government out of their way to choose the path that is best for them,” she said.

After criticism from teens and activists, legislators this month modified the bill to add some protections for high school students.

Nineteen-year-old Christopher Tingle, who has worked at a Florida grocer since he was 15, testified at the December hearing that he didn’t think high school students should be working from midnight until 6 a.m.

“I would have done it because overnight shifts have better pay,” Tingle, now a college freshman, told The Post. “But I wouldn’t have been able to pay attention in class and I do think it would have impacted my ability to get into college.”

John Tully for The Washington Post
A McDonald’s in Rutland, Vt., that is operated by Coughlin Inc., a franchisee that was fined more than $100,000 in 2022 for violations of child labor laws at nine stores in two states.