It’s the biggest case of its kind ever pursued by the Maine Labor Department. It’s the largest number of citations and the biggest fine the Labor Department has ever brought against a private corporation. It’s a case in which one retailer is charged with 1,436 violations of state child labor laws. And who is the good corporate citizen on the receiving end of a $205,650 state fine? Why, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc of Bentonville, Arkansas. The state violations took place between January of 1995 and June of 1998. The cases involved situations where Wal-Mart was using teenage labor to work too early or too late, or too many hours a week or too many days in a row. Maine officials say the illegal use of teenage labor is just a sign of how tight the labor market is in Maine. Wal-Mart says the company will do “constant monitoring” to prevent any more violations. According to Foster’s newspaper, the violations were found as a result of an audit in 1998 when one Wal-Mart store was found breaking the law. It was only by checking Wal-Mart’s books that the violations were found. The Maine Labor Department has cited Wal-Mart for such violations for five years — but usually issued no fines. Most cases involve teens working more than the allowed number of hours in one day. One Assistant Attorney General in Maine told the newspaper: “It’s definitely not a sweatshop situation, but when you’re looking at kids working those many hours, it can have a significant impact on their education.” Maine has clear laws about how many hours kids can work on school days. 14 and 15 year olds can work 3 hours on a school day; 16 and 17 year olds can work 4 hours. These are all violations involving children under the age of 18. These same age groups are limited to 18 and 20 hours of work per week, respectively, during the school week. State officials noted that the number of teen agers seeking work permits in the state nearly doubled over the year before, meaning that more teens were needed to fill in jobs that adults wouldn’t take. “That was a red flag for us,” said one official. There was no immediate response from Wal-Mart about the fine, or why the company continued to violate state child labor laws for years.
Which is worse: the fact that Wal-Mart was violating child labor laws and working these kids beyond the normal work limits the state has established, or the fact that Wal-Mart kept doing it for years, even after being nabbed by state officials, and advised to stop it? Wal-Mart now says it needs “constant monitoring” of the situation, but they are about five years too late in Maine. State officials found 1,436 violations at all 20 Wal-Marts in the state, so it was not just an isolated situation. All Wal-Marts were doing it, and local managers either did not know the law, or ignored it. Either way, Wal-Mart is not disputing the fine, which would have been enough to pay for nearly 32,000 hours of teenage work at Wal-Mart. You won’t find this story on any Wal-Mart TV ad. The head of Maine’s Bureau of Labor Standards said that companies like Wal-Mart were “struggling to find the workers they need, and clearly they’re looking to minor workers to help fill that need.” Wal-Mart says it will now instruct its managers and workers about labor laws, and work to prevent any more violations.