When a Family Business Violates Child Labor Laws

[From the Hartford Advocate]:

By John Stoehr

Where do parental rights end and children’s rights begin?

Laws protecting children from the hazards of the workplace violate the constitutional rights of parents to teach their kids the family business. That’s the claim of two restaurateurs who filed suit against the state Department of Labor (DOL) in federal court on May 20.

Michael and Migdalia Nuzzo, owners of Clinton’s Grand Apizza, say statutes forbidding children under 16 from working in restaurants should not apply to family-owned businesses. Their children are not “working” but learning a trade that has been passed down through generations.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, whose job is to defend the law, is currently reviewing the case. Though the Nuzzos’ case has made for good headlines — they have been interviewed by Fox News, CNN, ABC News and NPR, along with a handful of local TV and radio stations — experts say chances of victory are slim. The law is clear and there are no exceptions for family-owned businesses.

What happened?
In early May, a DOL officer appeared at Grand Apizza to inform the Nuzzos it’s illegal for minors under the age of 16 to work in restaurants in Connecticut. The Nuzzo kids are 8, 11 and 13. The officer represented the DOL’s Wage and Workplace Division, which investigates potential violations of child labor law. According to director Gary Pechie, protocol requires the agency assess the severity of allegations. If, say, a child is alleged to be using a wood chipper, an investigation is launched. If, say, a minor is said to be working in a pizzeria, which is relatively less hazardous, then his agency moves to “educate and inform,” Pechie says. That was the case here. The agent’s goal was to inform the Nuzzos of the law. There was no investigation and no penalty. It was like a traffic cop pulling you over for speeding and then letting you off with a warning.

What was the response?
Shock and outrage. Disbelief, too. The Nuzzos were doing what a lot of parents do, they said. Besides, the kids aren’t working. They’re helping. The kids aren’t paid, they said. They don’t operate machinery. And they don’t miss school. For short periods of time, the kids “watch, learn and assist their parents in the creation of New Haven-style pizza and the fundamentals of running a local pizzeria,”

According to the suit. Attorney Raymond Rigat says his clients ask the court only to declare state law inapplicable to “family business circumstances.” The law, he says, violates a handful of civil liberties, including something he calls “family integrity.” Federal law, he says, makes exceptions. State law doesn’t. “It’s a constitutional norm to have a family business exception,” Rigat says. “[The Nuzzos] ask to lead their lives without government intrusion.”

Do they have a legitimate case?
It doesn’t look good. If state and federal laws differ, the most protective law is followed. In this case, Connecticut’s law is among the most protective in the country. No one under 14 can work. Period. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds can be employed as farmhands, newspaper deliverers and golf caddies, among other things. In the wake of 2007, revelations that more than 20 Walmarts in the state were violating child labor laws, state legislators beefed them up to include up to five years of jail time for each offense.

The law, moreover, is explicit about businesses that may pose workplace hazards: “No minor under 16 … shall be employed or permitted to work in any manufacturing, mercantile or theatrical industry, restaurant or public dining room …” Even then, there are severe time restrictions. Industries exempt from the law, and ones that may also pose workplace hazards, like agriculture and hospitals, have strict guidelines. If you’re a 15-year-old farmhand, for instance, you can’t drive tractors.

The law is set up that way, says Daniel Schwartz, a legal expert at the Hartford law firm Pullman & Compley, because parents aren’t alone in having a stake in children. Society does, too. “The government has a compelling argument — safety,” Schwartz says. “The courts have usually erred on the side of legislative action to protect the safety of minors.” That’s why challenges to child labor laws are difficult to pull off, Schwartz says. “Unless [their attorney] can challenge the very legality of the law under the Constitution, they are going to have a tough road.”

C’mon — pizzerias aren’t that dangerous.
The Nuzzos don’t think so either. According to their suit, the children are “under the direct supervision of their parents and sometimes their grandparents.” As a reporter for New England Cable News put it: How much safer can they be? Yet about 44,800 teens were hospitalized for cooking-related injuries, according to a 2009 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Of those, 63 percent took place in hamburger and pizza establishments. Besides, there’s no evidence to suggest being with your parents makes you safer, says Reid Maki, spokesperson for Washington, D.C.’s Child Labor Coalition. “It’s a commonly held belief that parents are the best form of protection, but I see the workplace accident reports all the time of children who are injured in the presence of their parents,” he says. “Kids are getting hurt in these work settings. Parental rights don’t trump a child’s right to safety.”

But the kids aren’t really working, right?
Sorta. If a business benefits from your labor, then you’re working, even if you’re not paid, says Gary Pechie of the Department of Labor. In media reports, the Nuzzos admitted they benefited: Their children greet customers, bus tables and help out generally. The Nuzzos also claim their business is an extension of their home, thus laying the groundwork for allegations that state law violates their right to privacy. But such logic works in reverse, too: The Nuzzos are not only their children’s parents but their employers. As such, the Nuzzos are beholden to state labor laws, which are applied to businesses equally, Pechie says. “There are no loopholes.” Besides, no one is saying the Nuzzos can’t bring their kids to work, says Schwartz, who also authors the Connecticut Employment Law Blog. “Kids clearing the table at home is one thing,” Schwartz says. “At a restaurant, it’s another. There’s nothing wrong with parents bringing their kids to work and overseeing them there. It’s just the nature of the tasks they do at work that makes the difference.”

What’s next?
Given there was no investigation and no fine was levied, some are saying this lawsuit is an expression of the current anti-government furor. You can see this in media stories that repeat uncritically a key phrase — that the state is “prohibiting the Nuzzo children from learning the family trade.” Strictly speaking, the state makes no such assertion. Others say the lawsuit is political. Reid Maki, of the Child Labor Coalition, says a primary belief among conservatives is that children are subject to their will. “The odds are against [the Nuzzos], but theoretically, the courts could go with the rights of the parents.”

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *