Labor markets are tight and teenagers can fill in some of those necessary part-time positions, but hoteliers need to be mindful of the legal requirements and risks involved in employing minors.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—The labor markets are tight, and hoteliers are finding it difficult to find enough people to fill all their positions. In some cases, hiring a teenager in a part-time position can fill that void.
But there’s more to employing a minor than making sure Mom and Dad are OK with it. There are federal and state laws in place to protect minors from workplace abuse and exploitation, and hoteliers need to be mindful of them to stay on the right side of employment law.
Nuts and bolts
Employers hiring minors need to be mindful of federal and state laws regarding the hours these employees can work, which can vary when the employees are in and out of school, said Andria Ryan, partner at Fisher Phillips.
The laws dictate the length and time periods in which they can work, she said. Employers need to have some record of the employees’ birth dates—such as a copy of their birth certificate or a work certificate—in case they are audited.
“Any time (the U.S. Department of Labor) does an audit, even if it’s not about child labor, they will always look at child labor when they’re there,” Ryan said. “They will ask for a list of everybody under the age of 18 who was on payroll the last three years.”
In a past case, a resort Ryan’s firm represented had to provide records for more than 100 employees because it had a number of younger employees working as lifeguards at the pool and working in the coffee shop.
There are certain duties minor employees can perform, Ryan said, and there are many they can’t. The restricted duties include working in hazardous conditions, which in the hospitality industry includes such tasks as working with a deli meat slicer, operating trash compactors and driving on public roads.
A few years ago, one of Ryan’s clients had a wage hour investigation, she said. A younger employee sliced his finger cutting lemons on the deli slicer, which—aside from the age restriction—no one was supposed to slice lemons that way. The employee went to the emergency room for stitches and an ER doctor reported the company to the labor department. That doesn’t mean, however, employers should deny employees medical care, Ryan said.
Protection from harassment
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said the hospitality industry has a particular problem with harassment as it hires vulnerable people, such as immigrants and foreign workers as well as young people, Ryan said. The laws in place governing the employment of minors require employers to protect their younger employees, she said, and if an employer doesn’t prevent harassment, the employer must act immediately to rectify it.
Imagine a hostess at a restaurant who is under the age of 18, Ryan said, and it’s one of her first jobs. The hostess is exposed to some of the banter in the kitchen, such as a manager making an off-color joke or another co-worker makes an inappropriate comment.
“What do we expect that 17-year-old to do?” Ryan asked. “Do we expect her to say, ‘That’s offensive, don’t say that to me’? More likely, she’s going to shrug it off and laugh uncomfortably. Then it happens again because no one complained about it. It’s an invitation to keep doing it.”
This scenario happens because there is a vulnerable person who does not feel empowered to stop it, Ryan said. This kind of situation almost needs a buddy system, she said, in which other managers are looking out for this. In the aforementioned scenario, there could be a lead hostess closer in age to the employee who might be easier to talk to than the restaurant manager.
“Empower people to mentor them, to meet with them periodically and have conversations with them,” Ryan said. “See what’s going right, what’s going wrong for things that might not make their way to the GM or restaurant manager.”
Most good employers have or should have a harassment policy and reporting procedure in place, Ryan said. Breathe life into the policy by making sure all employees, especially the younger employees, look at the policies, and make the policies and reporting process are easy to use. Train everyone on how to use the reporting process.
“Train managers not just how to avoid legal liabilities but how to control and address behavior,” she said.
Employees will say stupid things to one other, Ryan said. Employees get familiar with each other and even date, but there is a line that people shouldn’t cross.
“It’s work, and it needs a professional decorum,” she said. “Leaders need to patrol that and set the tone themselves.”
Employee policy, mentoring
Concord Hospitality allows 16- to 18-year-olds to work in certain areas, said Debra Punke, SVP of human capital. The employee base tightened so much in many markets that the company decided to hire minors for specific positions in order to fill those roles, she said.
The company’s current policy is that a minor employee cannot work in any position that would require them to go into a guestroom or any other area they would be at risk, said Lila Hedlund, VP of HR operations at Concord Hospitality. Instead, they work in positions such as bussers, dishwashers, hostesses and project helpers with managers.
Past studies have shown that associates 18 years old and younger who have worked in housekeeping positions have at times been exposed to something that was traumatizing, Punke said, which led to lawsuits.
“You have to be mindful of all the things that can go on inside a hotel,” she said. “We protect all our associates in a hotel, but there’s a higher risk when they’re under 18.”
Every 16- to 18-year-old employee has a buddy or mentor who stays close to them, Punke said. The mentor introduces them to the other employees in the hotel to make sure everyone knows who the new hire is and what their role is. Every new hire—regardless of age—receives an overview of the handbook and rules, but the mentors sit down with the younger employees to make sure they understand all of the parameters.
“New-hire training covers everything from harassment to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Heath Administration) safety practices,” Punke said.
While hiring minors does require extra effort and consideration, an entry-level position at hotel is a good way for teenagers to enter the workforce, Hedlund said. Not every young person is going to go to college, she said, and there are different ways to gain experience and learn.
Hotel companies can help train young people and provide them meaningful work, she said, and many VPs and regional directors of operations started out working at a hotel without having gone to college.
Not worth the risk
LBA Hospitality does not hire anyone younger than 18, Director of Human Resources Marsha Lacey said, and some positions, such as serving alcohol or driving, require applicants to be at least 21. As a general rule, the company doesn’t employ anyone under the age of 21, she said.
As LBA Hospitality manages mostly select-service properties, the hotels have limited staff at times, particularly in the evening, Lacey said, which is when minors are usually available to work after school. When staffing is limited, the departments sometimes cross-fill, and the company doesn’t want younger staff members to be in the position where someone would request the sale of an alcoholic beverage.
If a 16- or 17-year-old were working in a hotel’s restaurant, Lacey said, it’s possible he or she would be confronted with an angry customer.
“To be able to have someone who can defuse the situation, it helps if the person is of an age older than 16 or 17 to handle that,” she said. “When you work on a limited staff, especially in the evening hours, it’s harder to justify putting someone underage in that position.