Experiencing 'minor' difficulties: Employing teens presents special 'opportunities'

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To say that movie theatres have a unique challenge regarding the age demographic of their “typical” employee would be an understatement. Despite high unemployment providing a potential increase in atypical candidates for service-level jobs, theatre jobs still tend to be filled by teenagers.

What’s wrong with that, you say? Well, for those of you who’ve forgotten what it‘s like to be 16, close your eyes and think back… (For some of us, this will take some time.)
Hormones. Drama. Prom. More hormones. Acne. Driver’s Ed…did I say hormones? And for today’s teens, add Facebook, Twitter, online gaming, texting while driving, and the Jonas Brothers. (For the unenlightened who don’t know who the Jonas Brothers are, just Google “Today’s Teen Heartthrobs.” They’ll be at the top of the list…right behind Twilight’s Taylor Lautner, of course.)

Add to all this “fun” the following: Polling data for teenage employees shows that their list of priorities looks something like this:
1. Friends
2. Social Activities
3. School
4. Family
5. Work (slight exaggeration on my part)

In addition, this demographic, at the back-end of Gen Y, is also referred to as the "Trophy Generation." Why? Unlike “back in the day,” when you only got a trophy if you won the championship game, in this generation everyone gets a "Thanks for Participating" trophy—they’re all winners! The result: an enhanced expectation for recognition and entitlement at work.

So let’s recap: maturity-“challenged,” don’t care too much about work, but want recognition and respect. Anything else? Oh yes: Employing them creates all sorts of potential legal complications. Uncle Sam and all of his state-level counterparts have all sorts of interesting rules about employing anyone under 18.

Haven’t experienced this yet? You will. Coming soon to a theatre near you: your local Department of Labor investigator (“I’m from the government and I’m here to help”). Due primarily to abuses in the early part of the last century, there are many laws in place to protect minors in the workplace, and rightly so. Unfortunately, without rigorous communication and training, it’s easy to inadvertently run afoul of these at the theatre level.
Scared about employing teens yet? Well, to quote the immortal Yoda: “You should be.” Does that mean you shouldn’t employ them? Of course not.

In a previous article (“Future Shock,” FJI June 2007), I shared some best practices regarding the non-legal side of this equation: Give respect to get respect; constantly challenge; over-communicate; provide balance; recognize good work. But there are also some simple things you can do from a legal perspective to make the work experience better for both you and them. Here are a few:

Know the rules. The Fair Labor Standards Act has some very strict rules regarding how we can employ minors. But more important, each state has its own set of rules as well—and they vary from state to state. Make sure your operations are following minor work laws for their state: when they can work, break requirements, and the maximum hours they can work during school (which is different from when school is not in session).

Keep proper documentation. Make sure you have onsite proof of age for every minor in your employ. And if you have a minor for whom you’ve been granted an exemption, make sure you have a copy of that document on hand at the theatre as well. In addition, you must keep documentation of each minor’s break times. One way to do this is to have them clock in and out for breaks, but remember that depending on break length and federal and state laws, many breaks must be paid.

Manage it. While you may tell employees that it’s their responsibility to take their breaks at the appropriate time (and can—and should—take a hard line with violators), it’s you who will receive the DOL penalty if your minors are not taking long enough breaks or are working too many hours. Simply telling employees to take their breaks isn’t enough. You have to enforce it—sometimes with formal disciplinary action. And by the way, there’s no wiggle room here: A break two minutes less than the prescribed time is still considered a violation by the DOL. It’s not like driving 60 in a 55 zone on the interstate; the DOL doesn’t allow a “buffer.”

Keep them away from “hazardous” equipment. While, thankfully, popcorn poppers do not generally fall into this category, certain kitchen equipment and trash-compacting equipment may. With the growing proliferation of in-theatre dining as well as the increasing prevalence of onsite trash compactors, this issue is becoming more common. Minors in general are not permitted to operate such equipment. And furthermore, locations that employ minors are required to put safeguards (i.e., locks) in place to prevent them from doing so.

Train, Train, Train. Managers, supervisors, and the associates themselves must be trained to ensure that everyone is working toward legal compliance in these areas. In fact, if the DOL investigates, they will want to see evidence that such “minors in the workplace” training programs are in place. Just like that trooper on the interstate, a DOL investigator will not consider ignorance of the law as an adequate excuse…in fact, quite the opposite.

Given all of the above, one might be inclined to think that it’s simply not worth it. And there are some days I might be inclined to agree. But as we all know, there are tremendous advantages to working with people in this age group. According to author Eric Chester (Employing Generation Why and Getting Them to Give a Damn), these workers are generally “adaptable, innovative, efficient, resilient, [and] tolerant.” Their enthusiasm and energy can be contagious, and many theatre managers list working with these “kids” as one of the most rewarding aspects of their jobs.

It just takes some active management on our part to do so appropriately. If we do it right, these challenges are really just “minor” issues…so to speak.

Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes comments or questions via e-mail at kwiedenkeller@amctheatres.com.