Two Sonic Drive-In franchisees in South Carolina were fined a combined $61,012 after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor unearthed child labor violations at 13 locations.
Atticus Franchise Group—an Atlanta-based private equity firm which operates 60 Sonic Drive-In locations—employed 36 children ages 14 and 15 to work illegally at eight locations in South Carolina, including Clinton, Gaffney, Greenville, Greenwood, Greer, Laurens, and Simpsonville. Founded in 2015, Atticus owns and operates 60 Sonic Drive-Ins and 70 Massage Envy franchise locations in 10 states.
The investigation also found 55 children ages 14 and 15 who were allowed to work outside of legal hours by 3497 Beaufort Limited Partnership and its parent company, Boom—a fast-food business enterprise that operates Sonic Drive-In locations in Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. The department issued fines to the franchisee for violations at five of its South Carolina Sonic locations, including Chapin, Columbia, Newberry, and Sumter. Incorporated in 1992, Boom owns and operates 94 fast-food locations.
This comes on the heels of another investigation by the DOL in May, which found 170 child labor violations by the operator of six Reno, Nevada-area Sonic locations. The franchisee employed 14- and 15-year-olds to work longer hours than legally allowed. Plus, the young teenagers were assigned to operate fryers without automatic fry baskets, which move food in and out of hot oil and grease. That’s a prohibited job for workers under 16, and is considered a hazardous occupation.
The franchisee, SDI of Neil, was fined $71,182 in civil money penalties. The division also recovered $274 in overtime back wages for two young workers who were denied overtime pay for hours over 40. Plus, investigators found the employer hired one employee who was then 13 years old, which is under the legal age for employment in restaurants and other non-agricultural jobs.
Wake-Up Call for Unethical Employment Practices
This isn’t a new issue. In fiscal year 2022, the division found child labor violations involving 3,876 children nationwide, an increase of more than 60 percent since 2018. To combat this worrisome trend, the Wage and Hour Division assessed employers over $4.3 million in civil money penalties. But, it goes without saying that Sonic isn’t the only chain restaurant grappling with unethical employment practices.
In May, three McDonald's franchisees were fined more than $212,000 for child labor violations, including one restaurant employing two 10-year-olds who were found working as late as 2 a.m.
“Too often, employers fail to follow the child labor laws that protect young workers,” Wage and Hour Division district director Karen Garnett-Civils said in a previous statement. “Under no circumstances should there ever be a 10-year-old child working in a fast-food kitchen around hot grills, ovens and deep fryers.”
And last year, Chipotle was ordered to pay $7.75 million to the state of New Jersey when state officials found roughly 30,600 labor violations against minors. The investigation was triggered by Chipotle's history of child labor violations in New Jersey and other states. In January 2020, the fast casual was ordered to pay $1.37 million in fines because of more than 13,000 child labor violations in Massachusetts.
In response, The Wage and Hour Division has published Seven Child Labor Best Practices for Employers, which include resources and suggestions for operators like implementing “STOP” stickers on hazardous equipment for minors, training tips, and downloadable fact sheets and flyers with labor law information and warnings. Another suggestion: operators can establish an internal phone number which allows workers to report child labor violations anonymously, which will not lead to retaliation.