Labor Burned Over Kids Cooking Rules

Print More

With more than half of all 15- to 17-year-olds employed in the retail trade industry-such as fast food, restaurants, and grocery stores-the U.S. Department of Labor has backed down from proposed regulations that would have allowed 14- and 15-year-olds to be involved in deep-fat fryer and hot grill activities termed "inherently dangerous" by child advocates.

"We turned up the heat on them," says Jackie Nowell, a spokeswoman for the D.C.-based United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which has been lobbying hard along with the 53-member D.C.-based Child Labor Coalition (CLC) to keep the regulations from taking effect. A DOL ruling had been expected by the end of last year.

"We got fairly extensive comments on the proposed revisions," admits Rae Glaff, the director of external affairs in DOL's Wage and Hour Division. "We are now in the process of analyzing and reviewing these comments. These things take time."

The DOL regulations-brought about, says Nowell, by pressure from the restaurant industry in pursuit of cheaper labor-would have allowed 14- and 15-year-olds to: operate hot electric or gas grills, so long as there was no open flame; operate deep-fat fryers, so long as the fryers were equipped with devices which automatically raise and lower the baskets; and clean and maintain cooking devices (including the changing, cleaning and disposal of oil or grease).   

At issue, says CLC Coordinator Darlene Adkins, is the fact that allowing these age groups to operate deep-fat fryers and open grills flies in the face of a 1994 recommendation by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which called for the prohibition of minors working in close proximity to cooking appliances.

"Everyone in the research community is opposed to this," says Adkins, whose group represents 50 organizations. "Cooking operations are a proven and evident risk among older working teens, so we are mystified at the department's intention of allowing even younger minors to engage in these activities."

Adkins cites a 2000 study done by DOL's Wage and Hour Division that states: "More than 80 percent of lost work-time injuries involving youth occur in either the retail trade or service industries, mostly in eating and drinking establishments and food stores." And "More than 45 percent of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses of youth under 18 occur in the restaurant and grocery store industries."

These concerns motivate continued coalition resistance to the current so-called "in plain view" regulations that allow 14- and 15-year-olds to perform "light cooking duties" (french fry preparation) in full view of customers and employers. "But the heavy cooking with the fat fryers is dead," says Nowell.  "And that's good."