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Complying with federal laws when hiring teen employees

July 10, 2013

Does your business employ teenagers in the summer? Young workers are a valuable asset to many employers at this time of year. If you’re among them, make sure your organization is in compliance with federal and state laws.

Government agencies have websites to inform youth workers of their rights. Here’s a look at the applicable laws.

Summer means teenage employment will rise at many workplaces. More working teenagers means an increase in potential risks for employers…including the risk of harassment and other illegal treatment.

If your organization employs teenagers, don’t cut corners when complying with federal and state employee-protection laws just because the employees are young.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) all have websites to actively inform teenagers of their rights:

The DOL’s “Youth Rules” website tells teenagers: “Before you start working, you should know what your employer can and cannot require of you. As a young worker you are limited in the types of jobs and number of hours you can work.”

OSHA describes actual cases in which teenagers were injured or killed at work on its website “Young Workers You Have Rights!”

The EEOC’s “Youth at Work,” website gives examples of illegal behavior and tells teens how to file complaints against employers.

The “Welcome” on the EEOC site states: “This website is designed to teach you about some of your rights and responsibilities as an employee…. learn about different types of discrimination affecting young workers and what you can do to help prevent discrimination in the workplace.”

Employment Discrimination and Harassment

The EEOC tells teenagers they are protected against employment discrimination when it involves:

  • Unfair treatment because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or disability.
  • Harassment by managers, co-workers, or others in the workplace because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or disability. 
  • Denial of a reasonable workplace change that an employee needs because of his or her religious beliefs or disability. 
  • Retaliation because an employee complains about job discrimination, or assists with a job discrimination investigation or lawsuit.

Recent Case

Facts of the case: Panda Express, the Chinese fast food restaurant chain, recently agreed to pay $150,000 to settle an EEOC lawsuit filed on behalf of at least three female teenagers who were allegedly sexually harassed on the job in Hawaii.

According to the EEOC, one male kitchen supervisor at the Panda Express in Kapaa, Kauai, sexually harassed females on staff more than four years ago. The supervisor subjected the workers, some of whom were between the ages of 17 and 19, to sexual comments, language and advances, the EEOC stated. Upon reporting the harassment to the general manager, the EEOC added, Panda Express management failed to take enough action to stop or correct the situation.

The EEOC filed its lawsuit in September 2012 in U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii (EEOC v. Panda Express, Inc. and Panda Restaurant Groups, Inc.). As part of the settlement announced on May 29, 2013, the parties entered into a two-year consent decree requiring Panda Express to designate an in-house equal employment opportunity coordinator; revise and distribute its anti-harassment policy and procedures; and provide annual sexual harassment training to all employees in Kapaa and to all general managers in the state of Hawaii.

Smart moves: Employers should inform and train managers, supervisors and team leaders about employee rights and the responsibilities leaders have to assure the rights are protected. Ask supervisors to read the information on the EEOC, DOL and OSHA websites pertaining to youth workers.

Be aware that teenagers may harass other teenagers. The EEOC’s website describes a case in which a 19-year-old restaurant manager harassed and sexually assaulted a 16-year-old worker.

In addition, consider these tips from the EEOC to help promote voluntary compliance and prevent harassment and discrimination cases:

  • Encourage open, positive and respectful interactions with young employees.
  • Remember that awareness, through early education and communication, is the key to prevention. 
  • Establish a strong corporate policy for handling complaints. 
  • Provide alternate avenues to report complaints and identify appropriate staff to contact. 
  • Encourage young employees to come forward with concerns and protect staff members who report problems or otherwise participate in investigations from retaliation. 
  • Post company policies on discrimination and complaint processing in visible locations, such as near the time clock or break area, or include the information in young employees’ first paychecks. 
  • Clearly communicate, update, and reinforce discrimination policies and procedures in a language and manner young staff members can understand. 
  • Provide early training to managers and employees, especially front-line supervisors. 
  • Consider hosting an information seminar for parents or guardians of teens working for the organization.

The federal government is reaching out to teenage workers online to help ensure they receive proper wages, stay safe on the job, and are not the victims of illegal treatment. Many youth workers are eager to gain experience and job skills at summer jobs. They can be an enthusiastic addition to your team. But you must comply with relevant federal and state rules and ensure young workers get adequate training in safe practices.

Learn how to communicate with teenagers. Encourage them to ask questions about procedures that are unclear and to report situations that are unsafe. As OSHA advises employers: “Remember that young workers are not just ‘little adults.'”

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner AdvanceHR

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