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Three-Day 'Child Watch' Sweep Finds 7,000 Minors Allegedly Working Illegally

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By Reagan Walker

Washington--As part of a major federal crackdown on alleged child-labor-law violators, more than 500 investigators for the Labor Department last week surprised thousands of businesses nationwide during a three-day sweep.

The strike force found 7,000 minors allegedly working under conditions prohibited by the Fair Labor Standards Act, and it initiated more than 3,400 formal investigations.

Most of the alleged violations involved 14- and 15-year-olds working more hours or later hours than permitted by law. About 900 16- and 17-year-olds were found employed in hazardous jobs--performing tasks or using equipment that pose a potential threat to their safety.

Nearly 200 children under age 14 were also found working, which is prohibited except in such cases as delivering newspapers or acting.

The targets of the effort, dubbed "Operation Child Watch," were traditional employers of young workers--fast-food restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, bakeries, pizza shops, and candy distributors.

The action comes just one week after the department filed suit against Burger King Corporation for what it says are repeated violations at almost every one of the nearly 800 restaurants owned by the company.

The actions come in response to increasing pressure on Secretary of Labor Elizabeth H. Dole from legislators and child-advocacy groups to beef up investigations of child-labor violations and stiffen financial penalties. Ms. Dole promised action.

"Protecting our children--America's future--from exploitation in the workplace is a fundamental duty of the Labor Department," Ms. Dole said. "The cop is on the beat. Violations, whether motivated by greed or by ignorance, will not be tolerated."

The actions are expected to spark debate on Capitol Hill about revising child-labor laws. The House Subcommittee on Employment and Housing was scheduled to hold a hearing on the topic late last week.

The business community is expected to argue for a relaxation of rules, while child-advocacy and education groups will urge sticking with the present laws and strengthening enforcement. Many educators have long complained about students' being too tired to learn after working late on school nights.

"A lot of people think of child-labor laws in terms of safety," said Clifford Johnson, director of family-support services at the Children's Defense Fund. "What has been forgotten is a concern over achievement. The whole reason we instituted these laws in the 1920's and '30's is that school needs to be the first priority for children."

Labor Shortages Cited

The number of child-labor violations uncovered by the department has doubled since 1985, said William C. Brooks, assistant secretary of labor for employment standards.

Ms. Dole said labor shortages are one reason violations are up, and said she expects the trend to continue.

The shortages "may put more pressures on employers to hire young people, and we want to make sure that employers follow the law to provide safe and rewarding work experiences," she said.

Under the law, 14- and 15-year-olds are allowed to work only 3 hours a day when school is in session and a maximum of 18 hours during a five-day school week. They also may work only between 7 A.M. and 7 P.M. In addition, the law forbids young workers to operate hazardous equipment, such as power-driven meat slicers and dough mixers.

Of the nearly 23,000 child-labor violations found by the department in 1989, approximately 65 percent were work-hours violations.

Examples of the alleged violations found last week by the strike force include one restaurant that alone employed more than 150 14- and 15-year-olds and allegedly violated the restrictions on hours worked. Ten of those youths were said to be using prohibited equipment.

In the coming weeks, the department will analyze the strike force's findings, follow up leads that were developed, and complete investigations. Final results will be announced as soon as they are compiled.

"We will look at regional and national trends," said Secretary Dole. "We will follow up on operations that cross state lines, and we will go to court for injunctions if the circumstances call for it."

Burger King Charged

The department has already filed one highly publicized suit against restaurants owned and operated by the Burger King Corporation. The nearly 4,600 Burger King franchises were not named in the suit.

The majority of the alleged violations were at restaurants in Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and North Carolina.

The suit, filed in federal district court in Miami, seeks to enjoin Burger King from violating all child-labor laws, and asks the court to order the company to pay all legal costs associated with the suit. Civil fines for such violations are assessed through separate proceedings. The fines can be as high as $1,000 for each violation.

A spokesman for Burger King said last week that the company had received a copy of the suit, but not the specific allegations. "But whatever they are, if they have not already been fixed, they will be," he said.

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