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Can minors be paid below minimum wage?

sad teen food server

Question:

I am a high school student and just received my first paycheck from a new part-time job. When I started, I was told it paid minimum wage at first and then would go up from there. But the hourly rate on my paystub is below minimum wage. How do I address this?

– Emma, QSR, Narberth, Penn.

Answer:

There are a few reasons that your pay rate may be lower than you think it should be:

  • Your employer is taking the tip credit.
  • The information on your stub is not presented clearly, or you are not reading it clearly, so you are calculating your pay based on net rather than gross.
  • You are being paid at a lesser training rate for minors.
  • It is a mistake and needs to be addressed.

Before jumping to the conclusion that your employer is skirting the law, here is what I suspect is happening, especially since QSR staff are not typically tipped employees: At the federal level—and allowed by many states and municipalities—minors under 20 are allowed to be paid a lower minimum wage at the start of their employment. Specifically, the Department of Labor states:

“Unless otherwise exempt or employed under conditions discussed below, covered minor employees must be paid at least the statutory minimum wage for all hours worked.
Employees under 20 years of age may be paid $4.25 per hour during their first consecutive 90 calendar days of employment with an employer.
Certain full-time students, student learners, apprentices and workers with disabilities may be paid less than the minimum wage under special certificates issued by the Department of Labor.”

As usual, problems happen when there is a mismatch between expectations and reality. Your employer clearly had in mind to pay a specific rate. By not specifying that rate in numbers but rather as “minimum wage,” it did not meet your expectation for full minimum wage. This is another problem that could have been prevented by clear communication on both sides.

My advice is for operators to have clear policies for employing minors and to meet with both the employee and the parents to clarify expectations prior to starting work to avoid bigger problems—and turnover—later.

More on employing minors here.

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