Hiring high school and college students is a great way to get extra help over the summer months, particularly for quick-service restaurants that tend to have a seasonal increase. However, it’s very important that it’s done correctly. A lot of students are still minors, and there are HR rules and regulations for when they can work and special considerations for hiring them.

Who is Legally a Minor?

In most cases, for employment purposes, the age of majority is 18. So, a minor is a young person under the age of 18. In most cases, this will mean 16 and 17 year olds approaching the end of high school or just starting in college. In some states, a minor constitutes anyone under the age of 18 who is required to attend school (so a 17 year old who graduates early may not, in fact, be considered a minor.

What Laws Apply to Minors?

There are employment laws which apply to minors that don’t apply to adults. Some of these may be state specific, so it is important to check state and local laws. Most of the federal laws that apply are part of the Fair Labor Standards Act. State laws tend, however, to be more stringent.

Here’s a quick overview of the Federal law:

  • Minors under 14 can’t be employed, except in certain limited areas (such as babysitting and newspaper delivery).
  • Minors of 14 and 15 can only be employed outside of school hours. They can’t work over 18 hours in a school week or 40 hours in a non-school week, and can only work between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. for most of the year, extended to 9 p.m. between June 1 and Labor Day. Sixteen and 17 year olds can be employed at any time, but are subject to the same overtime provisions as adults.
  • The minimum wage for youth under 20 (for non-tipped employees) is $4.25 for the first 90 days. It goes up to the normal minimum wage after that. It’s not lawful to remove employees to replace them with teenagers for the lower rate.

Some states have additional laws. To use California as an example, 16 and 17 year olds aren’t allowed to work after 10pm on an evening preceding a school day, or 12:30 a.m. on an evening not preceding a school day. Minors yet to complete 7th grade can’t work while school is in session.

Generally, 14 and 15 year olds should only prepare food and beverages using less hazardous equipment such as toasters, blenders, and coffee grinders. They shouldn’t operate rotisseries, high-speed ovens, rapid toasters, etc. They’re not permitted to bake, or work in the freezer or meat cooler (although they can occasionally enter a freezer to fetch an object). Sixteen and 17 year olds shouldn’t use meat slicers, choppers, saws, meat grinders or patty-forming machines, commercial mixers and bakery machines. 

In most states, 18 to 21 year olds can serve alcohol (but not work in bars). Only Maine allows 17 year olds to serve alcoholic beverages, and there may be restrictions. However, minors can serve alcohol if it’s “incidental.” That is to say, a waiter under the age of 18 can bring the drinks over to the table, but not tend the bar, make cocktails, etc. If a restaurant has a separate bar area, they can’t employ anyone under 21 to work in that area, including bringing somebody over from the restaurant side to fill in.

Some 17-year-olds can drive as part of their employment, as long as the vehicle is less than 6,000 pounds, but they can’t make time-sensitive deliveries. Make sure all delivery drivers are at least 18.

Do Minors Need a Work Permit?

Most states require that minors have a work permit or similar before starting work. Some states also require a proof-of-age certificates. In some cases, the minor will need to apply for the permit themselves. In that case, restaurants should refer them to their school guidance counselor, who will know which forms are required and likely have them handy. Requirements for work permits can include:

  • A certificate of physical fitness to work, generally requiring a physical within the last year.
  • Proof of age, such as a copy of their birth certificate or school ID.
  • The signature of a parent or guardian.
  • The signature of somebody from the school. This may not be required for students working during the summer, although they should still go through their school. Working during the summer can actually help students with their academic career.

At least the parents, and sometimes the school, have to give permission. In some cases the restaurant may be able to set specific job duties and get pre-approval for the job to be occupied by a minor. If work permits are required, make sure to see the permit before hiring the teenager or scheduling them for any hours. Even if a work permit isn’t required, ensure that the minor has permission from their parents to work.

Make sure to only give minors a reasonable schedule, remembering that they shouldn’t be working overtime if they’re under 16. Even though it’s summer and they don’t have school, they may have other academic activities such as summer reading to take care of. Their schoolwork should always come first. Ask right away about family vacations, camps, and college admission, to know when they are and aren’t available.

There are advantages to hiring minors (including their enthusiasm and flexibility of scheduling), but additional laws, state fines for infractions of work permit or hour requirements can be as much as $1,000 per occurrence, and for more serious infractions can be as high as $10,000 and even result in imprisonment.

Mia Reedy is Human Resources Manager at Flores Financial Services, Inc. Flores provides quality accounting and HR services, from startup planning to ongoing business administration and compliance support, including bookkeeping, payroll, budgeting, customized financial reporting, and consulting services. Flores has specialized in the hospitality industry for more than 30 years.
Employee Management, Outside Insights, Story