With summer approaching, many employers will be turning their attention to staffing up for the season. The summer workforce includes a substantial number of minors. So, this is a good time to consider the issues involved with hiring minor employees.
Of course, most employers are already aware that just about every state, as well as the federal government, regulates the employment of minors. Regulations govern the minimum age for employment of minors, the hours they can work, permission they must obtain, and hazardous occupations they are disqualified from filling. Summaries of these regulations are readily obtainable on the internet. For example, West Virginia provides FAQ’s at https://labor.wv.gov/wage-hour/child/labor. Tennessee offers a summary at tn.gov/workforce/employees/labor-laws/child-labor. Western Kentucky University provides a chart at https://www.wku.edu/hr/policies/policiesdocs/kychildlaborposter5_28.pdf.
The regulations merely scratch the surface. There are many other issues to consider. One of the more obvious ones is whether minor employees will be required to spend time with adults under circumstances that create the potential for sexual harassment, or worse forms of sexual misconduct.
Prudent employers will structure working hours and assignments such that these circumstances are kept to a minimum. In addition, adult employees should be trained regarding limitations they are to observe with regard to minor employees. Some examples of topics where training might be helpful are:
- Social media contact with minor employees
- Ride sharing with minor employees
- Work-related travel with minor employees
- Off-duty in-person contact with minor employees
- Consumption of alcohol with minor employees present
- Providing alcohol to minor employees
Beyond training, employers may also consider whether criminal background checks should be conducted for adult employees who are going to have significant workplace contacts with minor employees. Criminal background checks are governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act and various state statutes and regulations, so employers must be careful to follow the rules that apply. A criminal background check result indicating a basis for concern that an adult employee would tend to engage in sexually inappropriate conduct with a minor employee should be followed up upon on a case-by-case basis. The EEOC requires employers to consider the nature of the offense, the time that it occurred, and the nature of the job-related circumstances.
Studies have shown that minor employees are more likely to remain silent about sexual harassment because they are embarrassed to report it. But when harassment escalates to the point that minors finally do tell someone they trust, lawsuits and EEOC claims may follow. In order to avoid this scenario, it is critical to ensure that minor employees brought onboard for the summer understand what harassment is, that it should be reported, and to whom they can go. A signed acknowledgment that training on these topics has been completed should be part of the onboarding package.
Aside from sexual misconduct, another potential issue has to do with safety orientation and training. Minor employees may not know that they can refuse to work when conditions are unsafe, and that they have a right to report unsafe conditions. As with sexual harassment, the fact that they are minors, and that they are new to the workplace, may cause them to be reluctant to speak up. Time spent training minor employees on these topics, and documenting the training, will be time well spent should a minor employee suffer a serious workplace accident or illness.
Thus far this article has focused on keeping minor employees safe, but it is also fair to consider the harm that minors can do to the company or its employees. It is very important to consider in advance which minors will be granted access to company computers and cell phones, and what limits may be placed on that access. Having done this, it is then important to train the incoming minor employees on your policies regarding computer and cell phone security and permissible uses.
In some cases, such as with camp counselors for example, teenage employees may have considerable access to young children. These teenagers carry a weighty responsibility. Criminal background checks are difficult. Most criminal records for minors are sealed, and minors are not legally capable of consenting to a criminal background check, meaning that parents or guardians would have to give consent. In view of these realities, employers should insist on multiple references, and check the references thoroughly. They should consider having more than one person interview candidates and keeping documentation of the interviews. In short, given the weight of the responsibility that comes with the job, and the dearth of information available about the minor candidate, it is vital to show that the application and interview process is thorough.
Lastly, ensure minor employees know and acknowledge in writing your policies on drugs and alcohol and on weapons in the workplace. This is something most employers do with all new hires, but it is important not to let “summer help” slip through the cracks. Just as you would with other new employees, obtain written acknowledgments from the candidates that they have read and understand the policies.
Bottom Line: Following the steps outlined above can minimize exposure to risks arising out of harm to a minor employee, as well as harm caused by a minor employee. Implementing these steps is well worth the time and trouble.