In a case that could shape the job market for 14- and 15-year-olds throughout the nation, Maryland argued yesterday that Hardee's Food Systems Inc. committed illegal age discrimination when it fired all of its 14- and 15-year-old employees.
Hardee's, based in Rocky Mount, N.C., fired more than 2,000 workers nationwide under the age of 16 in 1991, claiming that a federal crackdown on child labor laws was making it too risky for the fast-food chain to employ the youngsters.
But in her opening arguments of what is expected to be a weeklong administrative hearing, Sally Swann, an attorney for Maryland's Human Relations Commission, said the dozens of fired Maryland teen-agers should not be punished simply because Hardee's was afraid it would inadvertently violate the child labor laws.
Hardee's action did not violate federal age discrimination laws, which only protect workers over the age of 40. But it broke Maryland state law, which protects all workers against age discrimination -- including teen-agers, Ms. Swann said.
Although she didn't know how many other states had laws similar to Maryland's, Ms. Swann said many states have anti-discrimination laws that are tougher than the federal age discrimination statute.
Hardee's attorney, Michael C. Lynch, declined to comment on the case yesterday. A spokesman for the company could not be reached for comment yesterday.
But employers have complained, for example, that if a teen-ager under the age of 16 punches the time clock one minute after 7 p.m., the employers could be fined several hundred dollars for violating federal law. As a result, many have stopped hiring the young teen-agers to protect themselves from the possibility of federal fines.
Those familiar with the issue said the case, considered unusual and possibly precedent-setting, could reverse recent hiring policies among employers who normally hire young workers.
"This is enormous," said Dorianne Beyer, general counsel of the Washington-based National Child Labor Commission, an advocacy group which is not involved in the case.
Ms. Beyer said if Hardee's loses its case, employers in Maryland and states with laws similar to Maryland's could be forced to reopen job opportunities for 14- and 15-year-olds.
And if Hardee's wins, the job market for youngsters will likely continue to shrink, she said.
Wendy Webster, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, said the case threatens to put employers in an impossible bind.
Job opportunities for 14- and 15-year-olds have been shrinking in recent years because fast-food restaurants, for example, were afraid of a federal crackdown on laws that impose high fines for letting the youngsters work after 7 p.m. on school nights, Ms. Beyer said.
"And if you take away fast-food jobs, you take away the biggest employer of 14- and 15-year-olds," she said.
A survey last year found that many restaurant chains had stopped employing workers under the age of 16, she said.
Ms. Swann was arguing on behalf of Stephanie Martin of New Windsor, and John Hein Jr. of Pasadena, both of whom are 17 now. The state is seeking back pay for the two as well as an end to the practice.
Ms. Martin told the administrative judge she was angry to learn she and 10 others at the Westminster restaurant were fired simply because they were under the age of 16.
"I was very upset," she said, adding that she even tried to picket in front of the store. But, she said, she was denied a picketing license and so filed a complaint with the Human Relations Commission instead.