Child labor violations have been on the rise in the past 10 years, and the fast-food industry is responsible for the majority of them.

According to The Washington Post’s recent analysis of U.S. Labor Department data, child labor violations have increased more than threefold over the past decade, and the number of violations within food service have increased even more so.

In the first nine months of 2023, franchised fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A were involved in the majority of child labor violations, per the Post’s investigation.

What are child labor laws?

Child labor laws are in place to protect children’s right to attend school and to ensure that youth in the workplace are not subjected to dangerous situations or long hours.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 sets the minimum employment age at 14, although there are some exceptions within industries such as agriculture.

State laws vary, but federal law sets several limitations for employees under the age of 18. For instance, there are several categories of jobs that children under the age of 18 are not allowed to do to protect them from working in hazardous situations. Additionally, children under the age of 16 cannot work past 7 p.m. and must work less than three hours if they have school the next day.

Why has there been an increase in child labor violations?

According to the Post, the labor shortages caused by the pandemic are likely at the root of the surge in child labor violations. Employers have needed to hire more people and have required those employees to work longer hours, which has, in some cases, led to a violation of child labor laws.

Within the first nine months of 2023, the U.S. Labor Department found that approximately 4,700 employees under the age of 18 were working in a manner that violated child labor laws. The majority of those violations were in the food service industry, which continued a trend established in recent years.

The majority of food service violations between 2020 and late 2023 involved workers aged 14 and 15 who worked later or longer than the law permits, per The Post.

The Post reported that the majority of child labor violations in 2023 were reported in franchised fast-food locations like Sonic, Dairy Queen and Wendy’s. Some businesses hired children under the age of 13, while others scheduled minors to work late hours or operate dangerous culinary equipment.

Labor experts told the Post that franchised businesses may have higher instances of child labor violations because they feel a greater pressure to limit labor costs in order to offset fees. However, McDonald’s USA refuted those claims in a statement to the Post and said most teenagers are working in “age-appropriate roles and looking for meaningful jobs in their local communities.”

How to prevent child labor

If you have teens who want to work, make sure you both know their rights and are willing to speak to employers if they are being violated.

Familiarize yourself with federal and local laws regarding employment. The Department of Labor has several online resources available to provide guidance for child labor laws, including YouthRules, a website that provides information on the rights of young workers.