Legal Guardrails Apply to Underage Workers in Senior Living

Low unemployment numbers and labor shortages across the country have providers looking at creative ways to attract and retain workers, but they must exercise caution if their strategies involve underage employees such as high school students.

Providers must understand the relevant state and federal regulations and follow them to the letter, Fisher Phillips Partner Samuel Lillard told Senior Housing News. Lillard’s law practice general employment litigation, arbitration and mediation.

Providers in states such as Ohio and Michigan are dealing with labor shortages involving all positions in the industry. But Lillard advises human resources departments do their due diligence before hiring underage workers.


“Unless there is an interest in using [underage youth] to begin with as part of the business plan, you need to be careful,” he said.

Labor restrictions

The Wages and Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FSLA) has strict parameters on employing youth in the health care industry.

Teens between age 14 and 15 can only be employed outside of school hours, cannot work more than three hours a day and 18 hours a week when school is in session. Their job duties are limited to office and sales work, running errands and making deliveries, and food service jobs limited to waiting on and busing tables, dispensing food, washing dishes, and preparing salads and other food. They may not cook on gas or electric grills, as well as high-temperature cooking equipment such as deep fat fryers, rotisseries, high-speed ovens and rapid toasters.


Minors between age 16 and 17 have no restrictions on how long they can work. They are still restricted from operating equipment or performing tasks deemed too hazardous for them to perform. Further regulations on the use of child labor vary from state to state, Lillard said.

The Department of Labor is quick to investigate any complaint involving child labor.

“We’re seeing violations mainly in food service and housekeeping departments,” Lillard said.

Be prepared

It is tempting to recruit younger workers to senior living. According to a 2018 report by Argentum, 28% of the U.S. senior living workforce is 30 or younger.

While the FSLA tightly controls where and how minors can work in senior living, providers who understand the guidelines can attract new workers and help them become essential parts of the workforce.

“When employing minors, know what the rules are and follow them to the letter. Otherwise it creates a lot of liability to the provider,” Lillard said. “If the intent is to hire more minors to replace a dwindling [workforce] population, it’s a bad idea.”

Providers who plan on incorporating minors into the workforce tend to build in a diversity of age ranges, which benefits employees and residents alike.

Providers limit minors to roles in clerical, general office and assisting in community events, unless they really know what they’re doing and are under adult supervision, Lillard suggests. A 16-year-old can load a trash compactor, for example. But operating the machine is the responsibility of a direct supervisor.

“[Minors] should not be doing the heavy lifting,” Lillard said.