McDonald's works to help operators avoid child labor law violations

The company plans to survey its franchisees next year on their employment of minors in a bid to determine whether training or other resources on child labor are necessary.
McDonald's wants more information on its franchisees' use of minors to work restaurants. | Photo courtesy of McDonald's.

McDonald’s plans to survey its franchisees next year about the employment of minors inside their restaurants to determine whether additional resources are necessary to help them avoid child labor law violations, the company confirmed on Monday.

The company told franchisees about the survey in a system message last month. Bloomberg first reported McDonald’s survey effort.

The survey comes as federal authorities have been cracking down on child labor law violations. That crackdown has led to fines against fast-food restaurants, including some McDonald’s franchisees.

The company says it already provides training to franchisees on child labor. The survey is designed to gather information to determine if McDonald's needs to provide any additional training, resources or best practices to ensure owners are staying within federal regulations regarding the employment of minors. The company stressed that the survey is not tied to inspections of restaurants. 

McDonald’s contends that its system does not have a widespread problem with child labor law violations. The violations that are found are more a product of the system’s immense size. McDonald’s features 13,400 U.S. restaurants, most of which are owned by franchisees. Some 800,000 or more people at any one time work at one of these locations.

The company is also a key provider of what the restaurant industry calls “America’s first job.” One in eight Americans have at one point worked at a McDonald’s location, most of them as teenagers just starting out in the working world. One in three have worked at a restaurant.

At the same time, however, federal regulators have been fining more companies, including numerous restaurants, over child labor law violations. And there is concern about the reputation this is giving to McDonald’s and the broader industry.  

“They’re spooked,” one McDonald’s franchisee told Restaurant Business.

Several McDonald’s operators have been cited for violations in recent months. The U.S. Dept. of Labor in May fined a trio of McDonald’s franchisees more than $200,000 after citing them for violations involving more than 300 children, some as young as 10. A year ago, federal regulators fined 13 Pittsburgh area franchisees over violations involving 101 minors.

McDonald’s was hardly the only company found to be violating child labor laws. Chipotle, for instance, agreed to pay $322,000 to settle child labor law violations. And then a federal court awarded nearly $1 million in back pay and damages to employees of a Subway franchisee that was also ordered to sell their 14 Bay Area restaurants.

Franchisees may have turned to younger and younger workers in recent years as labor became more difficult to find. Or they may have had them work longer hours or use more dangerous equipment because of a lack of staff.

McDonald’s effort on child labor also illustrates the fine line the company is walking now between different federal regulatory agencies.

The fast-food giant wants to help franchisees avoid child labor law violations. But it also wants to avoid running afoul of the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) definition of “joint employer,” which that agency is tightening.

Some McDonald’s shareholders have asked the company for an independent audit of its labor practices, the Washington Post said back in June. That group wanted McDonald’s to adopt a “zero-tolerance” policy on such violations.

But if that is a rule that its franchisees must follow, then that could make McDonald’s a “joint employer” of its franchisees’ employees. As independent businesses, franchisees are the ones who hire, fire and determine employment policy. If the franchisor is seen as setting labor rules, it could be opened to liability for franchisees’ labor violations.

And it would also open the company to criticism from within its franchisee base, which has been concerned about the level of control the company has levied against its operators.

UPDATE: This story has been changed from an original version to clarify the role of the survey.

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