Call center pays $500K for employing children

OREM, UTAH — A Utah-based company that operates call centers in seven states has paid $500,000 in civil penalties for child-labor violations.

The U.S. Department of Labor cited Orem-based Western Wats Center Inc. for employing children too young to work and allowing children to work longer hours than allowed by law. The penalty was among the highest of its kind ever assessed against a U.S. company. The company said it settled the complaint amicably and that many of the violations were technical. It said it was working to improve internal controls before it was under a government investigation a year ago.

The settlement was announced Wednesday, although the company said it paid the fine in December. Regulators have said they found it unusual that Western Wats was employing so many young children to make cold calls to adults. In all, the company was cited for violations involving 1,482 minors under the age of 16. The infractions date to 2007 and 2008 at call centers in Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Western Wats does market research and political surveys.

Three of the teenage employees were 13 and too young to work except on farms, government officials said. The others, all 14 or 15, were found to be working more than three hours on a school day or more than eight hours on a weekend day, among other time and hour violations.

Western Wats characterized the violations as an oversight. It said one 13-year-old, who was stuffing envelopes, is the daughter of a corporate executive.
The other 13-year-olds were dismissed after the company said it determined they were too young to work.

Children under 16 make up about 6 percent of the staffing in a constantly churning work force, Western Wats has said.

The company released a statement to The Associated Press saying that by the time it settled the complaint “we had implemented a full remediation plan, which is fully operational.”

The statement added, “In early 2009, the DOL audited more than 20,000 employees’ millions of individual timecards from 2007 to 2008. The
violations they found were almost exclusively technical in nature. Long before the audit, Western Wats had already instituted policies and procedures
to make sure that these kinds of infractions never happen again.”

No child was employed against his or her will, the company and regulators have said.