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Child Workers at Risk

MUCH of America's service industry would grind to a halt but for armies of teenagers willing to flip burgers, sell clothes, or pump gas. Teenagers have flocked into the work force as a strong economy has raised starting wages and opened up choices. But child-labor law violations around the country have created what former New Hampshire labor commissioner Vance Kelly calls ``the downside of an otherwise good economy.''

In 1986, the United States Labor Department received 13,000 reports of child-labor law violations. By 1988, the number had grown to 20,054. Nationally, businesses paid $1.6 million in fines in 1988, with restaurants, hotels, and service businesses leading the field.

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Last year one in five violations throughout the US occurred in New England. New Hampshire, with one of the nation's lowest unemployment and highest growth rates, is a prime example. In the past year, businesses in the state have paid $93,738 in federal fines and nearly $100,000 in state fines. State labor commissioner Richard Flynn says the rise in child-labor law violations indicates that ``we're going backward rather than forward as a society.''

Some businesses find it more profitable to pay fines than follow the law. A case in point is DeMoulas and Market Basket supermarkets, located throughout New England and headquartered in Tewksbury, Mass. During 1985 and 1986, DeMoulas paid $24,900 in federal fines for violations found in the company's New Hampshire and Massachusetts stores. In fact, the US Labor Department took the company to court in 1986 for what it called ``oppressive child-labor practices,'' such as excessive hours and allowing under-age teenagers to use dangerous equipment (in this case, a power-driven meat slicer). But in 1989, the New Hampshire Department of Labor investigated and found the same pattern of abuses. A check for $13,000 promptly arrived at the department.

The Fair Labor Standards Act states that no one under 18 should work in a situation ``detrimental to their health and well-being,'' and goes on to categorize 17 occupations as ``hazardous'' for teenage workers. But in 1986, the Boston Globe detailed the injury, dismemberment, and death of teenagers on the job. A sampling of injury reports revealed over 1,500 teenagers hurt while they worked because companies were not complying with child-labor regulations. Based on that sampling, Massachusetts officials estimated that 6,000 or more minors were being injured annually.

Businesses can get away with continual abuse because teenagers don't complain. Linda Golodner, executive director of the National Consumers League, says, ``Younger workers don't know their rights and therefore don't know the violations.'' Also, the US Labor Department has only 978 inspectors to monitor the millions of businesses under federal child-labor guidelines, and state labor departments are equally strapped.

These figures don't include unregistered businesses and agricultural production, areas notorious for putting working children at risk. Two reports by the General Accounting Office describe the resurgence of sweatshops and the exploitation of children; and laws safeguarding children in agriculture are either extremely loose or nonexistent.

Some states are taking actions to combat the situation. North and South Carolina, after a four-year-old child was run over, no longer permit 17-year-olds to drive school buses. Wisconsin substantially increased its monetary penalties, Rhode Island's Department of Labor now has the authority to declare places or occupations as hazardous, and Michigan issued new regulations making hazardous-occupation provisions more consistent with federal standards and requiring closer supervision of minors.

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo has introduced legislation to restrict the number of hours youths could work while in school and prohibit them from working past 10 p.m. on school nights. The legislation would also substantially increase penalties to as much as $2,000 per violation. He said that his actions were prompted by such statistics as a 500 percent rise in New York City establishments illegally employing children.

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New Hampshire has started a survey of high school students to see if there is a connection between poor school performance, dropout rates, and jobs. The Legislature also recently passed a bill that drops the total number of hours a 16- or 17-year-old can work per week from 36 to 30, increases penalties, and requires parents to sign an employer's request form for a youth-employment certificate.

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