Possible child labor law violations investigated in Lenoir City

By DON DARE 6 News Reporter

LENOIR CITY (WATE) -- The state Department of Labor has sent an investigator to the Franklin Centre Zaxby's in Lenoir City to check on possible child labor law violations. Several teenagers tell 6 News they worked more consecutive hours at that Zaxby's than permitted by law, or they were assigned tasks they're legally too young to do.

The kids are 15 and 16-years-old.Child labor laws say the daily maximum is eight hours for employees ages 14 and 15 when school isn't in session. They may only work three hours a day on school days and no more than 18 hours a week during school. Jason Pranger worked at Zaxby's during the spring. "There was a couple of times I'd work doubles and get 30 minutes to eat and then go back to work after I'm done," he says. Three of Jason's friends tell 6 News they also worked long hours without breaks sometimes. Daniel Mills also worked at Zaxby's. Both he and Jason say they worked in the kitchen. "They put me back in the kitchen again. I asked to be a cashier. I'm only 15. It's a law. I'm not allowed to be around the kitchen," Daniel says. 

In Nashville, Department of Labor investigator Michael Dattilo spoke with 6 News about child labor laws. Dattilo isn't investigating the Lenoir City Zaxby's. The state says a local investigator is checking possible violations there. Dattilo says there are jobs in restaurant kitchens that are considered hazardous and off-limits for minors, ages 14 and 15. "About the only thing a 14 or 15-year-old minor may perform in the kitchen is some cleanup. But they cannot perform any working duties," DDattilo explains. That includes no cooking, slicing or cutting up anything. But Daniel and Jason claim they performed kitchen duties not permitted by child labor laws. Jason says when he was 15 he did "prep work with knives cutting onions, lemons." And Daniel says, "I'm not supposed to cook. I'm not supposed to be around the fryers. I'm not supposed to be around any knives whatsoever." "Yet, you were?" 6 News asks. "Yes, sir," Daniel says.

Dattilo says the child labor laws are tough because "We want to ensure their safety and their well being." Park Mays, the owner of Zaxby's, tells 6 News his restaurant hasn't violated any child labor regulations and his manager has done "nothing out of line." Mays declined to speak on camera but says he's cooperating with the state.

The mothers of Jason Pranger and Daniel Mills are disappointed with the restaurant's management. "Unfortunately, I wasn't aware of the child labor laws at that time," says Jason's mother, Tina Shelton. She adds that if she had been, "They wouldn't have been working there." "I definitely think what we are doing now is the right thing. We are bringing it to everyone's attention so other children and their parents are aware of it," says Daniel's mother, Colleen Russell.

The state investigates child labor complaints based on phone calls or emails. Time cards are one of the first things investigators examine. Posters on child labor laws are required to be set up inside restaurants where workers can see them. They're usually found in break rooms. The state Division of Labor Standards enforces the Child Labor Act, the Wage Regulations Act and the Prevailing Wage Act. To contact the department, call (615)-532-1347.

Studies show teens working more than 20 hours a week when school's in session can wind up with lower grades.

The teens who spoke to 6 News said they worked longer hours than that.

For instance, Kay Dee Inks, 16, who worked nine months at Zaxby's, says, "I worked more than 40 hours every week."

"When you talked to management, what did you say to them?" 6 News asks. "I asked them if they could cut down my hours and they told me they would see about it," Kay Dee says. 

Kay Dee's friend, Meagan Walker, worked at Zaxby's for eight months. She showed 6 News some time cards that may show possible child labor law violations.

"I worked more than three hours a day. You're not supposed to do that. I worked more than six hours without a break," Megan says. 

Before her 16th birthday and afterwards, Megan says she put in those long hours. "It shows where I clocked in at 10:42 a.m. and clocked out at 10:37 p.m.  That was 11.91 hours without a break."

Michael Dattilo is a lead investigator with the state's Division of Labor Standards in Nashville.

For minors ages 14 and 15, Dattilo says the rules are, "No more than three hours a day in a school day, no more than 18 hours a week during a school week. When school is not in session or if it's a non-school day, they may work eight hours a day, no more than 40 hours a week."

Dattilo says regulations are less restrictive for 16 and 17-year-olds. But no teenagers 17 and under are allowed to work six consecutive hours without a break.

Yet Kay Dee believes her time cards may show she worked without breaks and sometimes over 40 hours.

"I knew that I wasn't supposed to work so many hours because people kept telling me that was wrong. But I didn't know what the exact limit was," Kay Dee says.

"What do you think of working all those hours?" 6 News asks. "It was stressful because I was in school. I had a lot of college course classes," Kay Dee says. 

Inspector Dattilo says child labor hours are designed so there's less stress on teens. "Teens who are 15, 16 and 17 have their entire futures ahead of them. If they fall short in their studies, it's going to affect them the rest of their lives."

6 News asked Park Mays, the owner of the Lenoir City Zaxby's to go on camera for this report, but he refused.

Mays says he's cooperating with labor board investigators and the restaurant has nothing to hide. He also says Zaxby's has done nothing out of line.

But the mothers of Kay Dee and Megan say they believe Zaxby's management should have  paid closer attention to the number of hours their daughters worked.

"Meagan worked doubles, seven days a week without a day off many times," says her mother, Sherry Bolinger. 

"I feel strongly that Zaxby's and the management of Zaxby's took advantage of my children," says Kay Dee's mother, Tina Shelton. 

From 2006 through 2007, the state Department of Labor issued 200 citations for child labor rule violations with fines totaling more than $250,000.

6 News doesn't know how long the investigation into alleged violations may take in Zaxby's case, but decisions are usually reached within four to six weeks.

The state Division of Labor Standards enforces the Child Labor Act, the Wage Regulations Act and the Prevailing Wage Act. To contact the department, call (615)-532-1347.