CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Two large Iowa grocery store chains were penalized for child labor violations following a multiyear enforcement initiative conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division in Iowa and Nebraska.
Details -- which were released Thursday -- show grocery stores across the state had violations in which minors performed tasks like loading or operating balers, meat slicers, bakery machines, and operating a motor vehicle -- which violate the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The investigation, which took place in 2011 and 2012, audited a total of 27 Hy-Vee stores, 19 of which passed the audit. Eight Hy-Vee stores were cited for a total of 28 violations. Of those 28 violations, 25 involved employees under 18 throwing trash or boxes into compactors or balers. Ruth Comer, assistant vice president of media relations at Hy-Vee, said the compactors or balers were not in operation in the 25 violations listed.
The other three involved underage employees cleaning parts of disassembled equipment, which is also prohibited by the Fair Labor Standards Act. According to a press release, one of the Hy-Vee stores with a violation is located in Cedar Rapids. Another nearby grocery store -- Big G Food Store Inc. in Marengo -- was cited for similar violations, which include allowing minors to operate a meat slicer, use a compactor/baler, and a violation that involved underage employees working hours or times prohibited by the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Scott Allen, regional director for public affairs for the U.S. Department of Labor, said those violations shouldn't be taken lightly.
"I think the baler/compactor charges are very serious, because it puts youth in danger of possibly being crushed by the baler, that's why they're not allowed to use them. That basically crushes material such as cardboard and presses it down," Allen said. "It's very dangerous and we've had cases -- I'm not aware of a fatality in this investigation -- but I have dealt with it in other states, where youth are injured because they caught an arm in there and they lose an arm."
Comer said that underage employees and their managers are trained on what tasks they are and are not allowed to complete, adding that, in most cases, teen employees are trying to help out by keeping things cleaned up and throwing things out, but end up, inadvertently, doing a task that's restricted.
"They don't realize at the time they're doing anything wrong, and they feel bad after when they find out that wasn't something they're supposed to do," Comer said. "We take it as our responsibility to keep re-training and re-educating about tasks that are restricted to employees 18 and over."
Garrett S. Piklapp, secretary and general counsel with Fareway Stores Inc., said they were aware of the report and that Fareway cooperated fully with the Department of Labor's investigation. In a public statement, Piklapp said nearly all the violations resulted from a minor throwing cardboard into a bailer that was not operating.
"We feel strongly that none of the violations jeopardized the safety or well-being of any minor employee at Fareway," Piklapp said in the statement. "Maintaining a safe environment for our employees and customers remains our top priority, and we will continue to improve this through additional training and awareness programs throughout the organization."
Though no nearby Fareway stores were listed on the release, stores in New Hampton, Ottumwa, Toledo, Webster City, Norwalk, and Ames received violations.
As a result of the initiative, the release said Fareway Stores, Inc. has signed a settlement with the department committing to ensure future compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act at all of it's present and future stores. That agreement includes specific measures the company will take to prevent future violations, such as training managers about hazardous occupations for minors and posting information about the Act for employees, establishing email contact for reporting possible violations and implementing a new policy to ensure its employment of minors is in compliance with child labor laws.
The Wage and Hour Division in Des Moines also conducted a seminar at the Hy-Vee headquarters to give managers and staff compliance assistance and how to prevent future violations.
The Department of Labor has established safety standards for young workers. Employees under 18 are not allowed to perform activities deemed hazardous by the Secretary of Labor. Banned activities for minors include using power-driven machinery, balers, compactors, and paper-product machines. They also include driving a motor vehicle or working as an outside helper on a motor vehicle, among other things.
Comer said Hy-Vee is also working to take precautions like putting up more signs, or locking and keeping baler doors closed and giving the manager on shift a key, to prevent minors from inadvertently breaking the rules or harming themselves.
"We're very proud of the thousands of young people we employ, in most cases, when we employ a 16-year-old it's their first job and we take pride in providing them with that first work experience and we want it to be a very positive one for them and most of all make sure they're in a safe and supportive environment," Comer said. " So we take that responsibly very seriously and when mistakes occur our focus is on education and preventing those mistakes from reoccurring."