Five Below's Center City location was one of several Philly businesses to be cited for child labor violations. Most were minor. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

When Lev Kaliuzhnyi was 16 he got his first job, at a clothing store in Plymouth Meeting. He worked as many hours as he could get — sometimes as many as 36 in a week. 

“I was working eight-hour shifts, and even one time I picked up a double shift where I was working 11 hours in one day,” recalled Kaliuzhnyi, a Roxborough resident who’s now 18 and a first year student at Thomas Jefferson University.

At some point, however, his hours were reduced to no more than 4.5 hours per day, roughly the amount of time a teenager can legally work in Pa. without taking a mandated meal break.

“I heard from other co-workers that our manager was giving too many hours to underage kids, and management came in and was like, ‘Hey, you can’t do that.’ So she cut down and started giving less hours,” he said.

In fact, under state law, 16 and 17 year olds generally can’t work more than 8 hours a day or 28 hours during a regular school week. 

The store where Kaliuzhnyi stocked shelves and rang up sales apparently never got in legal trouble for giving its teenage workers excessively long shifts, as far he knows. However, many other employers across the state have been hit with thousands of dollars in fines for doing the same thing, or for violating other child labor laws, especially in recent months.

Since Gov. Josh Shapiro took office in January and installed a new labor secretary, the state Department of Labor & Industry (DLI) reports it’s received a “surge” of reports of alleged child labor violations. The agency says it’s launched three times as many investigations as in the same period of 2022.

In Philadelphia, companies that have paid penalties this year range from a bowling alley to the discount chain Five Below and the fast-casual restaurant Honeygrow, all businesses that are both patronized and heavily staffed by under-18 employees.

Some local business owners say they’ve been penalized more for struggling to comply with the state’s complex and cumbersome worker tracking system than for any real misconduct. 

They advocate for the system to be modernized, and to take into account some teens’ urgent need to work. In Philadelphia, nearly a third of under-18 residents, about 29%, live below the federal poverty line, according to U.S. Census data.

“I’m very big on my employees. I take care of my employees always. We went with everything that we thought was morally correct,” said Thunderbird Lanes co-owner Scott Hughes. The Northeast Philly bowling alley earlier this year paid a $3,000 fine for 99 violations. 

“When you look at [the] violations,” Hughes said, “it looks like we were like a sweatshop — which we’re not.”

Clock out for breaks, or they don’t count

Philadelphia businesses were hit with penalties ranging from $300 to $4,400 this year. In addition to kids working too many hours, the violations include not providing mandated breaks to teenage employees and hiring kids who don’t have proper work permits, according to DLI.

Of the infractions at the bowling alley, 83 were for break violations involving seven young employees. Another 11 violations were for teens working too late or too many hours, three were for not having work permits, and two were for schools not being informed their students had jobs, as the state requires.

According to co-owner Hughes, the investigation was sparked by Thunderbird Lanes’ efforts to follow the law. 

After one teen was fired for not bringing in working papers, among other issues, the employee reported the business to authorities, Hughes said. He also maintains that the workers actually were getting their breaks, but were being paid for that time, so it wasn’t documented as such. He says he now makes sure the workers clock out.

“The kids right now are mad because now they went from a half-hour break that was paid for to a half-hour break that’s not paid for,” he said. “It’s a shame that’s how it’s got to be. But I understand why, because there are companies that do take advantage.”

Hughes said some of the teens were staying a few minutes after 11 p.m., which is the latest they’re allowed to work, and that he and his business partner weren’t being strict enough about work permits. He maintains that all the problems have been rectified.

“That was just stupidity on me and my partner, not really knowing the laws. I knew some of the laws, but I didn’t know them all,” he said. “Well, now I know them all.”

Hughes’ account could not be verified, as the Department of Labor and Industry declined to provide complaint documents or other records. The agency’s open records officer, Wendy Willard, cited an exception to the state’s Right-to-Know Law that allows it to withhold records relating to non-criminal investigations from the public. She did not say why DLI wanted to withhold the information.

The department did provide a list of recent child labor investigations, along with a breakdown of the fines and types of violations. 

Is a convoluted document filing at fault?

After Thunderbird Lanes, the next highest number in Philadelphia was at a Five Below location. 

It was cited for 48 break violations involving seven employees, along with seven work permit violations and seven for not informing schools, all of which occurred between May 2020 and June 2021. The company paid a $4,400 fine this past June. Five Below representatives did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

Honeygrow, the fast-casual restaurant-chain that started in Philadelphia, had 15 break violations and three for work permits in November and December 2022, and in March the company paid a $1,350 penalty, according to state records and a spokesperson for the business. They did not identify the location where the violations occurred.

Honeygrow said in a statement that it “takes the hiring of minors very seriously” and blamed the DLI document filing system for some of the violations, describing it as “both manual and cumbersome, with several opportunities for delays and errors due to the nature of filing and mailing paperwork.”

“The violations demonstrate how easily an oversight can occur despite attempts at full transparency and our commitments,” the Honeygrow statement said. By contrast, it said, New Jersey’s fully electronic filing system “results in a complete, timely, and smooth information flow between companies, employees, parents or guardians, and schools.”

Honeygrow alleges the Pa. regulations around youth workforce are confusing and lead to easy violations. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

ACME Markets had 10 violations in fall 2022, half of them for schools not being informed, and paid $850. Mission BBQ paid $850, Bed, Bath & Beyond paid $350 and Rita’s Water Ice paid $300.

Statewide, 143 employers have paid $375,320 in fines for 6,179 violations this year, per DLI. A little more than half were break violations. 

The Pennsylvania employers with the most violations were Penn-York Camp Association, with 1,205, the majority of them break violations, and the City of Pittsburgh with 320 violations. The biggest fines were $18,000 paid by Hampton Township in Allegheny County and $16,400 by Wellspan Health in York County.

Working to help out mom

Child labor is a somewhat obscure part of employment law. Unlike some other areas, child labor issues are generally not exposed through civil lawsuits, and there aren’t many advocates who focus specifically on teen employees.

But it’s clear that young people are “particularly vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace,” said Mariel Mussack, an attorney with the Youth Justice Project at Community Legal Services, which provides free legal assistance in Philadelphia. The youth who CLS help with legal issues often work in retail and hospitality or as home health aides, she said.

“These can be very, very tough, very exploitative industries, and youth who work in these industries are often paid very low wages,” she said. “Most of our clients are working not really to earn pocket money, but rather to financially support themselves and support their families.”

Of Pennsylvania workers who earn the minimum wage or less, a little more than half are under 25 years old, and teens are generally among the state’s lowest-paid workers, Mussack said.

Hughes, the Thunderbird Lanes co-owner, said the state regulations are important to protect teens, but he wishes exceptions could be made on work hours and some other rules for some young workers.

“I’ve got kids here that are 16, that are out of their house, and don’t have a mom and dad. They want to work and they’re not going to school, but they can’t work more than five hours, so it becomes a situation like, what do I do?” he said. “I can’t break the law, but I also hate to see these kids suffering because they can’t afford to eat.”

Lev Kaliuzhnyi, the Jefferson University student, said he worked partly for pocket money and partly because his mom, an immigrant and a single mother, could use the help.

“I never really had an allowance as a kid,” he recalled. “I wanted to have my own money, my own income, and then help my mom out a little bit if she needed it.”

He spent some of his earnings on snacks and clothing, but also gave his mom “a large amount,” he said. “So I think my goals were accomplished.”

Why the surge in complaints? Unclear

The state crackdown comes in the context of a national worker shortage that has driven employers to hire more teens, as well as increasing reports of exploitation of migrant teen workers in several states. 

Yet the real extent of child labor violations in Pennsylvania and the cause of the surge of complaints are hazy. Labor Secretary Nancy Walker, a lawyer who previously headed the Fair Labor Section in the state Attorney General’s office, said in September that she “can only speculate on the reason.” 

One of the more egregious cases surfaced in April, when DLI filed criminal complaints against a Perry County roofer who allegedly employed a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old to work on second-story roofs. Minors under 14 are only allowed to work in a few jobs, including as a golf caddie, delivering newspapers, as a performer and on a farm.

Often more serious incidents are investigated by the federal government. In March, for example, the federal Department of Labor and OSHA investigated and issued fines for a number of violations after a  17-year-old worker fell 24 feet while doing roofing work on a store in the Western Pa. city of New Castle last year.

The feds also pursue egregious work-hour violations, such as the cases of a Dunkin Donuts franchisee in Hershey and several McDonald’s restaurants that had dozens of 14- and 15-year-olds working excessive hours, including more than 8 hours on some days, and working at night.

Despite an increase in such prosecutions nationally, nearly a dozen states are trying to loosen child labor laws at the behest of industries seeking cheap workers.

In Pennsylvania, however, the trend is in the opposite direction. State Rep. Regina Young, who represents parts of South and Southwest Philly, has introduced legislation that would double penalties for violators. 

“We just want to make sure that we are protecting our children,” Young told Billy Penn. “We are also speaking to employers to make sure they know we won’t tolerate this kind of abuse.”

Another measure, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Ryan Mackenzie of Lehigh County, would turn some child labor violations into misdemeanors, require DLI to report violations to federal and child welfare authorities, and mandate publication of a detailed annual report.

“The number of child labor violations nationwide has jumped dramatically in recent years, and it’s time we do something about it,” Mackenzie said when he introduced the bill. “Our state laws should be strengthened to better protect any at-risk child in the workplace and more harshly punish employers who take advantage of them.”

Some labor experts have criticized the measure, asserting that because it would require U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be notified of incidents, it would deter immigrants from reporting violations.

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...