Hiring minors—or individuals under 18 years of age—is a common practice among small business owners, especially during the summer months when high school students who are at least 14 years old (the federal minimum employment age) are out of class and looking to work while they are on break.
But oftentimes businesses employ minors throughout the year due to the lower labor costs. This is especially true for retail and restaurant businesses.
If you are a business owner or manager looking to hire younger workers for the first time, there are both federal and state laws you need to follow in order to stay compliant and avoid serious fines and penalties.
Federal child labor laws for hiring minors
The federal government’s child labor provisions are laid out in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). However, it’s important to note that most state departments of labor have their own laws around hiring minors. In cases where the rules differ, you need to follow the stricter regulation.
Check your state labor law guide to learn more about the child labor restrictions in your area and determine if you are subject to federal or local jurisdiction—or both. You can also find information about your state labor offices here.
Restrictions on workers under the age of 18
The US Department of Labor (DOL) prevents minors under the age of 18 from working jobs the Secretary of Labor deems “hazardous” or “detrimental to their physical safety, mental safety, and health.”
Under these restrictions, minors cannot operate, repair, clean, or set up power-driven machines. These can include:
- Woodworking machinery
- Metal forming machines
- Paper manufacturing machines
- Circular or band saws
- Industrial baking equipment
- Meat-processing machines
- Hoisting apparatus like forklifts, cranes, or freight elevators
For minors 16 and 17 years of age, “power-driven machines” don’t include lawn mowers, lawn trimmers, or weed cutters. However, minors 14 and 15 years of age cannot operate these tools as part of their employment.
The DOL also prohibits minors from participating in the following hazardous work:
- Roofing, wrecking, or demolition
- Mining operations, unless in an operational capacity offsite
- Areas that store or manufacture explosives
- Logging or sawmilling projects
- Brick and tile manufacturing
- Jobs that require radioactive material exposure
- Excavation work, unless it’s a manual excavation that doesn’t exceed four feet in depth
There are additional FLSA requirements for young workers that only apply to agricultural jobs and the operation of motor vehicles. Take a look at the US DOL site to learn more about the additional regulations.
The federal government does not require minors to obtain work permits, but many states have their own certificate requirements, so check your local laws.
Note: These restrictions mean that if your business is involved in one of these hazardous practices and you hire a minor, you’ll likely need to keep them primarily in an office setting and use them for clerical or custodial purposes.
However, some of these rules come with exceptions for minors who are participating in a recognized apprenticeship. Learn more about these types of programs on the US DOL’s Employment and Training Administration’s website.
Restrictions on workers 14- and 15-years of age
There are no restrictions on the number of hours a 16- or 17-year-old employee can work on the federal level, but if they are younger, the FLSA permits the following work hours:
- 3 hours a day when school is in session;
- 18 hours in a school week;
- 8 hours when school is not in session;
- 40 hours in a non-school week; and
- between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., except from June 1 through Labor Day, when it extends to 9 p.m.
Again, work time restrictions vary from state to state. Review your location’s rules to determine which set of laws you need to follow to avoid any complications.
Here’s an example: Unlike the FLSA, New York law restricts the hours a 16- or 17-year-old employee can work in addition to the restrictions placed on 14- and 15-year-old employees. Since their law is stricter, you would have to follow New York’s rule if you operated in the state.
Federal minimum wage rules for hiring minors
While the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, if you are only employing a minor temporarily—like for the summer—you are allowed to pay them at a lower rate.
According to the FLSA, you can pay workers under 20 years of age a “youth minimum wage” of $4.25 per hour during the first 90 consecutive calendar days of employment.
If you employ the worker for more than 90 days OR turns 20 during that timeframe, you must then pay them the standard rate.
In certain circumstances like a student-learning program or internship, you may obtain a special certificate to pay the participating employees a sub-minimum wage. Learn more about the rules here.
Note: You are not allowed to displace your existing employees in any way in order to hire temporary workers at the youth minimum wage.
Aside from the youth minimum wage, all the same wage and hour laws that apply to adult employees hold up for minors. This means you must withhold the necessary taxes, pay overtime for employees over 15 who are allowed to work more than 40 hours per week, and provide any benefits they qualify for that you offer the rest of the team.
Hiring your own children as employees
If the minors you want to hire are actually your own children, some of the regulations do not apply—unless your business is a corporation, in which case there are no exemptions.
You don’t have to pay your children minimum wage, although the DOL recommends that you pay them a reasonable rate. If you pay them below the minimum amount of compensation, your children are not subject to federal income taxes.
It’s important to note that the government does not take child labor laws lightly. Make sure you are also up to date on the state rules you need to follow to remain compliant. But as long as you employ minors correctly, doing so can result in a great learning experience for them, and a lower labor cost for you.
And if you need any help finding new employees of any age, Homebase’s hiring and onboarding software makes it easy to build a strong team with just one tool by posting your job on the top sites, providing a way to communicate with candidates, and even collecting the required documents before they start on their first day.