Fast Food Has A Child Labor Problem

The biggest chains in America are overworking the kids behind the fryer.

It seems that despite the heavy fines and legal consequences, the fast food industry just can't stop violating child labor laws. What's worse is that the violations are only getting more egregious when it comes to major franchises, The Washington Post reports.

National chains like McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, and Crumbl were only some of the companies found to have violated child labor laws in the past year. McDonald's offenses were some of the most glaring: One franchisee, Bauer Food LLC, was found to be employing 24 minors under age 16 to work more hours than legally permitted. Two 10-year-old children were found to have been working as late as 2 a.m. for no pay, and one of them had been operating the deep fryer, which is prohibited by the Federal Child Labor Provisions of Fair Labor Standards Act.

In the case of Chick-fil-A, the chain was forced to pay a $6,450 fine and $235 in back wages for allowing employees under 18 to operate a trash compactor and paying those employees not in actual wages, but with meal vouchers. Crumbl, one of America's fastest growing chains, was found violating child labor laws across six states in 2022 by allowing teens to operate hazardous machinery and scheduling them for more hours than permitted by law. Crumbl paid $57,854 in penalties for these violations.

Analyzing federal data, The Washington Post has found child labor violations have more than tripled in the past decade across all industries, with the majority of violations in the first nine months of 2023 coming from the food industry. McDonald's, the Post found, has averaged 15 violations per 100 stores since 2020.

However, McDonald's is not alone in its high rate of violations. Per the analysis, Dairy Queen, Little Caesars, Zaxby's, and Wendy's have also had high rates of violations per store since 2020.

With each violation comes a fine that can reach a maximum of $15,138 per child for instances not involving death or serious injury. The U.S. Department of Labor told The Washington Post the penalties are not high enough to, as the Post puts it, "deter highly profitable companies from breaking the law." This is evidenced by the fact that the Post found multiple fast food franchisees had repeatedly violated child labor laws even after paying penalties on previous violations.

Labor experts note that it's not just labor shortages contributing to the problem. More child labor violations are happening at franchised locations of fast food chains rather than corporate-owned ones, and that's likely because of a need to offset the fees charged by corporations. Employing minors in these illegal ways allows franchisees to keep labor costs down and cover the franchise fees, which the U.S. Small Business Administration notes can range from $20,000 to more than $100,000, depending on the company and the number of locations.

In the end, it is not fast food corporations nor even the individual franchise owners that suffer as a result of these violations. Thousands of dollars in fines can amount to a drop in the bucket for the nation's biggest chains. Instead, it's the minors, who risk serious injuries like fryer burns, and who underperform in school because they're overworked trying to make a little extra cash or help their families with some bills, taking the biggest hit.