High-schoolers Allege Long, Late Hours, Child Labor Violations At Popeyes In Oakland

Two high school students say they felt pressured to skip classes or homework to work long hours that violated child labor laws at a Popeyes in Oakland, Calif., according to complaints they filed with the California state labor department on Wednesday.

The teens allege that their Popeyes franchise employer scheduled them to work after school from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and sometimes past 11 p.m., according to the complaint filed with California’s Department of Labor Standards Enforcement. Those hours are longer and later than legally allowed on school nights, in violation of state child labor laws.

Johmara Romero, a 17-year-old cashier, said that her employer called her into work in the middle of the school day, and the teen skipped school that day, according to the complaint, which was obtained by The Washington Post.

California labor laws limit minors under 18 years to just four hours of work daily during the school day and nothing past 10 p.m.

The Post interviewed Romero and her mother to confirm the allegations in the complaint.

Romero said that when her manager first starting keeping her past 10 p.m. on school nights, she would wake up late and miss the bus and then fall behind.

“It impacted me a lot,” Romero said. “I started falling behind. I wouldn’t be able to get enough sleep. I would get frustrated. I don’t like falling behind in school. I would wonder if I would graduate because of my grades.”

A Popeyes spokesperson said the fast food giant immediately shut down the Oakland restaurant owned by one of its franchises on Thursday in response to the allegations made by workers and started “a swift investigation,” after The Post reached out for comment.

“We will not tolerate any violation of employment laws and if any of these allegations prove true, we will take action against this franchisee,” the Popeyes spokesperson said.

A request for comment from the franchise owner, 14th Street Chicken Corporation, was not returned.

The allegations provide an inside look at the toll of America’s child labor problem. Child labor violations have nearly quadrupled since 2015, according to Labor Department data, in part driven by persistent worker shortages and the arrival of migrant children without their parents in the United States. Young teens have been sacrificing their education, sleep, and making social connections to work for some of the country’s most recognizable employers who are hard-pressed for workers.

A cleaning company illegally employed a 13-year-old. Her family is paying the price.

Many of these violations have occurred in the fast food and restaurant industries, which have struggled to recover workers that left the industry during the pandemic, often for higher-paying jobs. Earlier this month, three McDonald’s franchises were cited for employing more than 300 children who worked longer hours than the law permits, among other violations. The Labor Department fined one of the franchises in Louisville, nearly $40,000 for having two 10-year-olds work, without pay.

Employees at the Popeyes in Oakland told The Post they planned to protest outside the store Thursday against the child labor and other violations alleged in complaints filed this week. They are organizing with SEIU’s Fight for $15 movement.

Another 17-year-old employee at the Popeyes alleged that she had also been scheduled to work at the Popeyes for longer and later hours than legally allowed, according to her statement, which is also in the complaint obtained by The Post. The Post isn’t naming her to protect her privacy because she is a minor.

“At one point I fell far behind in my classes, and it was hard to catch up because after school, all I could do was work, eat and sleep,” she wrote in her statement in the complaint. “I worked very hard to catch up, and I felt like I didn’t have time to connect with my friends because I had to spend my breaks and lunch getting help from my teachers and doing school work, because after school I have no time for homework when I am working.”

She said she was planning to skip her high school graduation trip to Disneyland this year, because she is afraid of losing her job if she asked for time off work to go.

“I am sad that I am going to miss Grad Night,” the other 17-year-old wrote in her statement. “I decided not to go because being broke is not for me, and I am afraid of asking for time off of work and getting retaliated against and then losing my income.”

The Biden administration announced a crackdown on employers who violate child labor laws, even as a handful of states with Republican-majorities have moved to relax regulations that prevent kids from working long and late hours, often in dangerous conditions.

This month, the Iowa legislature passed a bill that allows minors to work longer hours and take jobs in roofing, construction and light assembly line work with permission.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) signed into law in March legislation that eliminates requirements for the state to verify the age of children younger than 16 before they can take a job.

A Florida-based think tank and lobbying group, Foundation for Government Accountability, is drafting state laws that have successfully rolled back child workplace protections this year, The Post reported earlier this month.

Romero, 17, who recently graduated from high school, began working at Popeyes earlier this year to help her parents, who live paycheck-to-paycheck, pay their rent and utility bills, she told The Post.

Upon being hired, she said that Popeyes did not request that she have a work permit as mandated by California state law for all minors holdings jobs, according to the complaint.

Sometimes when her shift ended at 10 p.m., Romero said her manager told her “you are staying until 11,” according to the complaint.

While child labor violations have soared in the fast food world, the meatpacking industry has also taken the spotlight as reports of children as young as 13 working overnight shifts in slaughterhouses have surfaced. Earlier this year, the Labor Department fined a sanitation company $1.5 million for hiring more than 100 kids to clean razor-sharp saws and other equipment at 13 meatpacking facilities.

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