Are the owners of a pizza of the pizza restaurant who filed suit challenging the state’s child labor laws making a mountain out of a molehill?
A new report by the Advocate newspapers this week suggests that is the case. It’s worth the read. It’s something I’ve been wondering about as well because what was missing in the media reports was a detailed description of the actual action by the Connecticut Department of Labor. Absent from the reports was any suggestion, for example, that the state was ready to bring a lawsuit or levy fines against the restaurant.
The Advocate piece is one of the first reports that has looked at what the state Department of Labor’s actions have been. Indeed, it is hard to believe that the state was going to take any action against the pizza place owners and the report challenges the very notion that there was a grand "investigation" as has been suggested in earlier reports:
In early May, a DOL officer appeared at Grand Apizza to inform the Nuzzos it’s illegal for minors under the age of 16 to work in restaurants in Connecticut. The Nuzzo kids are 8, 11 and 13. The officer represented the DOL’s Wage and Workplace Division, which investigates potential violations of child labor law. According to director Gary Pechie, protocol requires the agency assess the severity of allegations. If, say, a child is alleged to be using a wood chipper, an investigation is launched. If, say, a minor is said to be working in a pizzeria, which is relatively less hazardous, then his agency moves to “educate and inform,” Pechie says. That was the case here. The agent’s goal was to inform the Nuzzos of the law. There was no investigation and no penalty. It was like a traffic cop pulling you over for speeding and then letting you off with a warning.
Indeed, this could be another roadblock for the lawsuit itself. Without any real case or controversy, courts are reluctant to merely rule on the legality of a law. The Advocate reports that
Given there was no investigation and no fine was levied, some are saying this lawsuit is an expression of the current anti-government furor. You can see this in media stories that repeat uncritically a key phrase — that the state is “prohibiting the Nuzzo children from learning the family trade.” Strictly speaking, the state makes no such assertion. Others say the lawsuit is political. Reid Maki, of the Child Labor Coalition, says a primary belief among conservatives is that children are subject to their will. “The odds are against [the Nuzzos], but theoretically, the courts could go with the rights of the parents.”
I am quoted in the article as saying that the parents have a "tough road" ahead because of the rigid contours of the state’s labor laws. That’s certainly the case. Challenges to child labor laws on constitutional grounds have a high threshold to cross. The parents may know that, though, and — as their attorney suggested in last week’s interview with NPR — may be seeking a quick settlement.
That said, the lawsuit has brought legitimate questions of the state’s child labor laws to the public’s attention. Should there be a limited parental exception? Are our laws too rigid? Are there changes that should be made? What IS the right age for kids to work?
These are all good questions to ask; it is just that the parents in this case may find that these questions may be better answered by the General Assembly, than the courts.