The Labor Department has fined Houston-area grocer Gerland's Food Fair Inc. US$41,400 for violating child-labor laws on work-time limitations - the same tight restrictions that have prompted many grocers and other retails to shy away from hiring youth who need jobs.

Jeff Reeder, executive vice president of the 16-store Gerland's chain, said the fine applied to alleged violations in 1999 and resulted from a misunderstanding and some confusion in the company and some work time-swapping by the chain's former 15-year-old employees.

The Associated Press reported that Gerland's allowed 14- and 15-year-old employees to work more than 18 hours during school weeks.

Gerland's was also accused of allowing 92 of its youth employees to work before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. during school terms.

But Reeder told StoreAlliance.com the company never knowingly hired 14-year-olds and now has a policy of not hiring anyone younger than 16 because of the highly restrictive and sometimes confusing federal laws applying to 14- and 15-year-old workers.

Many other grocers as well as restaurateurs and other retailers have adopted similar policies or often limit their hiring of 14- and 15-year-olds to fill only one to four staff jobs per store. Grocery store managers say they need people who can work more flexible schedules and more evening hours.

Winn-Dixie Stores' policy varies from market to market and sometimes store to store, said corporate spokesman Mickey Clerc. In some markets, he said, store managers don't hire workers under 16 years of age. In other markets, managers hire only a small number of the young teen-agers because of the tight work-time constraints, he said.

"It's just so hard to monitor," said Bob Burrus, who heads the four-store Burrus Super Markets IGA chain based in Grapevine, Texas, near Fort Worth/Dallas.

For that reason, Burrus said, retail grocers typically either don't hire 14- and 15-year-olds or hire only a few of the youth for any store. The kids often don't communicate their penchant for swapping work shifts when sick or otherwise kept or distracted from the job, he said.

But those common hiring practices may be changing. "With the tight labor market, we may have to hire some 15-year-olds, maybe even some 14-year-olds. We'll just have to monitor them more closely," Burrus said, noting that his policy has been to hire no one under 16.

Restaurateurs and grocers are starting to hire their first or more 15-year-olds, he said.

At Gerland's, Reeder told the AP, "Most of the violations were for 15-year-olds working past 7 p.m. during the Christmas holidays." He said managers were confused by the law. "We thought the 7 p.m. time didn't pertain to school holidays."

Reeder told StoreAlliance.com the young workers sometimes aggravated the problem of trying to keep up with hours worked and when.

"Kids were often swapping hours with other kids," he said. "We certainly didn't force anybody to work."

Under federal law, 14- and 15-year-olds are not to work more than three hours on any school day and not more than 18 hours in a school week. They can work before and after school hours, but not before 7 a.m. and not after 7 p.m. during the school term. In summers, they can work until 9 p.m.

In a separate matter, Gerland's was also found to have illegally deducted US$37,738 from wages of 320 employees and thereby paid them less than the minimum hourly wage for all hours worked.

Reeder confirmed his earlier comments that the deductions were made from paychecks of employees whose cash registers were short on funds when balanced at the end of the work shift. He said the affected employees approved the deductions as corrections.

Reeder said Gerland's returned the unpaid wages and also paid the fine assessed on the teen-ager work infractions.

By Worth Wren JR., StoreAlliance.com staff writer