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McDonald’s in Kentucky Employed 10-Year-Olds Without Pay, Labor Officials Find

One of the children was found to have been working the deep fryer, which is illegal under federal law.

Labor officials have uncovered hundreds of child labor violations across several dozen McDonald’s locations, including at a McDonald’s in Louisville, Kentucky, which employed two 10-year-old children and forced them to work without pay.

Department of Labor investigators have found that McDonald’s franchise operator Bauer Foods, LLC, which owns 10 McDonald’s locations, sometimes made the 10-year-olds work until as late as 2 am, doing tasks like preparing and distributing food orders, working the drive through and cash register and cleaning the store. One of the children was even found to be working the deep fryer. The Labor Department announced the findings in a press release on Tuesday.

Several federal labor laws were violated just in the employment of the 10-year-olds, labor officials said.

First, it is illegal for children under 14 to work under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Even if they had been over 14, even the most relaxed provisions of Kentucky child labor laws don’t allow children to work until 2 am. Fourteen and 15-year-olds aren’t allowed to work past 9 pm during the summer in Kentucky; sixteen and 17-year-olds in the state are prohibited from working past 1 am even if the next day isn’t a school day. Furthermore, it is illegal under federal law for a child under 14 to use a deep fryer. The company has been fined $39,711 for these apparent violations.

Labor officials uncovered these alleged violations among a litany of other instances of illegal child labor in McDonald’s locations across Kentucky, Indiana, Maryland and Ohio, the agency said. Across three franchises that collectively own 62 McDonald’s locations, officials found 305 instances of child labor violations, with children working past the number of hours permitted by law and doing tasks that are forbidden under labor law.

Investigators also found that two children, aged 14 or 15 years old, employed under Bell Restaurant Group I LLC, worked during school hours; the same group also committed wage theft, labor officials found, and was forced to pay $14,730 in back wages and other losses to 58 workers.

Together, the three franchisers were fined $212,544 by the Labor Department. This is an average of only around $700 a violation.

“Too often, employers fail to follow the child labor laws that protect young workers,” said Louisville Wage and Hour Division director Karen Garnett-Civils in a statement. “Under no circumstances should there ever be a 10-year-old child working in a fast-food kitchen around hot grills, ovens and deep fryers.”

“One child injured at work is one too many,” Garnett-Civils added.

Child labor violations have been on the rise in the U.S. According to data from the Department of Labor, the number of children employed illegally rose to 3,876 in fiscal year 2022 — a 37 percent increase over the previous year and a 283 percent increase over fiscal year 2015.

Penalties for child labor violations are often so low, however, that companies may deem the fine a simple cost of business. As of this year, the maximum civil penalty for illegal child labor is $15,138 — barely a slap on the wrist for a large company. And, as this week’s announcement shows, the fine is often much less than the maximum.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers across the country are trying to weaken child labor laws, introducing proposals that would allow children to do more types of work or work for longer, as well as legislation that would make it easier for employers to violate child labor laws altogether.

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