When Jacqueline Debernardi’s daughter got into the car, she was shaking. Meaghan had just finished a 10-hour shift at Chipotle in Beverly and hadn’t been given a break to eat or drink or sit down the entire time. For Debernardi, a single mother who picked up her 17-year-old daughter from work most days, it was the last straw.
Meaghan was scheduled to work until 11 p.m. on school nights and sometimes worked until midnight, once not getting off until 1:30 a.m.
Debernardi knew this couldn’t be legal. It made her think of a story she read in Catholic school about young children in the Industrial Revolution cleaning chimneys by crawling inside them. So she googled Massachusetts’ child labor laws. And then she called the attorney general’s office.
That 2016 phone call led to the biggest child labor law investigation in state history, uncovering an estimated 13,253 violations at the more than 50 Chipotle restaurants in Massachusetts, resulting in a $1.3 million fine — and a total settlement of nearly $2 million at the Mexican-food chain, Attorney General Maura Healey announced in January.
“I was thinking to myself, you did this to the wrong teen,” Debernardi said. “It’s a modern-day twist on kids in chimneys."
The Chipotle penalty is among a string of recent child labor violations in Massachusetts, especially at fast food restaurants that keep young workers on the job for too many hours and too late at night. The latest is set to be announced this week by the attorney general’s office: a $400,000 settlement for an estimated 2,100 violations at 46 Wendy’s restaurants around the state. In August, Qdoba Restaurant Corp., another Mexican-food chain, was fined $409,000 for more than 1,000 violations.
Employers struggling to find workers in a historically tight labor market are leaning heavily on their employees, including teens, more of whom have been working in recent years. But their hours and duties are tightly restricted under state law. During the school year in Massachusetts, 16- and 17-year-olds can only work until 10 p.m. on school nights and midnight on weekends, and can’t put in more than nine hours a day or 48 hours a week at any time.
But some employers blatantly disregard these limits, scheduling teens over the time allowed.
Some young workers, eager to make extra money, don’t complain about the long hours. Others may feel uncomfortable telling a boss they can’t stay late or cover a coworker’s shift. And more than a few are helping their families pay the bills. In Massachusetts households with less than $51,000 in annual income, working teens account for about 20 percent of their families’ earnings, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
One employee started working at Chipotle at the age of 16, when her mother was raising her and her younger brother and sister on her own in Dorchester — and was temporarily unemployed. The employee was putting in about 25 hours a week at two jobs while attending Roxbury Prep High School and started giving her mother money to help pay the bills.
“I did it on my own,” said the employee, who is now a 19-year-old scholarship student at Brandeis University and no longer works at Chipotle. “I was old enough to recognize my family’s situation.”
The employee started at the Harvard Square Chipotle in 2018, then went to the Downtown Crossing location, working the 4 to 10 p.m. shift. But when the restaurant closed at 10, it could sometimes take two hours or more to put away food, clean, and get everything ready for the next day, especially if they were understaffed, which was often the case, she said.
At times shefelt taken advantage of by her older, mostly male managers. But she hesitated to say anything after seeing her co-workers’ hours cut when they spoke up. “Because I was a young teenage female,” she said, “they felt like they could take control of me.”
In fiscal year 2019, the state of Massachusetts levied $487,000 in fines for child labor violations, up from $366,000 in 2018 and $270,000 in 2017. Federal investigations have also identified an increasing number of employers violating child labor law over the past five years, with 858 cases in fiscal year 2019, up from 542 in 2015; the number of minors involved nearly doubled between 2017 and 2019, to 3,073.
Working long hours can affect teens’ health, leading to exhaustion and stress that can open them up to injuries on the job and cause their schoolwork to suffer, said Jenny Fernandez, youth program director at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. Especially if this is their first job, or their family is relying on their income, teens may not protest long hours for fear that they’ll get fired, she said.
Meaghan, the Chipotle worker who sparked the massive investigation and who asked that her last name not be revealed, said she didn’t have the confidence to request a break or to insist that her manager do something about an older co-worker’s flirtations. While she was working there during her junior year at Beverly High School, she said, her grades plummeted to Cs and Ds.
“I didn’t really have time to do homework because I would go straight from school to work, and then I was there pretty late at night, and then weekends I was there all day,” said Meaghan, now 20, who has a baby and works part time as a medical assistant in Beverly.
In a statement issued when the penalty was announced last month, Chipotle said it was committed to ensuring that its restaurants were in compliance with all laws and regulations.
Teen workers at a Boston pizza chain often work past 11 on school nights, according to a 17-year-old employee who asked not to be identified. And when the restaurant closes at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, it’s not unusual to stay until 2 in the morning, and sometimes 3, she said.
It takes the teenager at least an hour to get home from work — beginning with a late-night 20-minute walk to the Orange Line, followed by a bus ride. During the week, she sometimes doesn’t get home until 1 a.m. Then she’s up at 5 the next day for school.
The schedule is tiring and her grades have slipped, the employee said, but she doesn’t mind the work, especially when $300-$400 shows up in her bank account every Friday. She likes being able to pay her own cellphone bill and help her mother, who works at a discount store and sometimes comes up short on rent.
“If I really wanted to quit, I would have quit,” she said. “But like I said, I need the money.”