ST. LOUIS -- Operators of three of the nation's biggest movie theater chains have paid more than $277,000 in federal fines over allegations that they violated child-labor laws by letting teenagers work too many hours and use dangerous machinery such as trash compactors, the Labor Department announced Tuesday.
The government said the alleged violations of U.S. child-labor laws by Regal Cinemas Inc., Marcus Theatres Corp. and Wehrenberg Inc. were uncovered as part of a "strategic" crackdown on what the department called the industry's high rate of noncompliance.
Investigators found the supposed offenses to be sweeping, surfacing in 27 theaters in California, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina and Wisconsin.
Some 160 employees were illegally being required to perform hazardous jobs -- everything from operating paper balers and trash compactors to driving motor vehicles, using power-driven mixers and baking -- in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act's youth-employment provisions, the Labor Department said.
That law identifies 17 hazardous jobs barred for workers younger than 18, including operating and unloading scrap paper balers and paper box compactors unless certain specific conditions are met. The law also restricts the times and hours of employees younger than 16 -- something the Labor Department said Marcus Theatres did not honor.
"The penalties imposed as a result of these violations should serve as a wake-up call to movie theatre owners and other employers," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in a statement.
"Businesses that employ minors are legally and ethically obligated to abide by child labor standards and ensure youth are protected on the job."
All three companies were alleged to have allowed young workers to load and operate trash compactors -- a federal violation that got Regal Cinemas, the Knoxville, Tenn.-based operator of Regal, Edwards and United Artist theaters, the heftiest of the fines: $158,400.
Regal Entertainment Group, Regal Cinemas' corporate parent, markets itself online as the purveyor of the nation's biggest and most geographically broad theater circuit, with 6,683 screens at 537 theatres in 37 states and the District of Columbia as of late last month.
Milwaukee, Wis.-based Marcus Theatres Corp., which paid $93,995 in fines, also let teenage workers drive motor vehicles, run a dough mixer. Employees younger than 16 were asked to do baking and allowed to work longer hours than legally permitted.
Marcus Theatres, a Marcus Corp. unit touting itself as the nation's sixth-biggest theater circuit, with 684 screens at 55 locations in seven Midwest states, said in a statement it remains dedicated to providing a safe workplace, fully cooperated with the Labor Department and "proactively took actions to address this situation before any violations were assessed." The company said those steps have included barring minors from loading trash compactors, revising signs to better spell out safety policies and age requirements, and reviewing federal regulations with managers and other employees.
While none of the violations linked to Marcus Theatres involved accidents or injuries, the company "is happy that these issues were brought to our attention so we could further strengthen the policies and procedures that we already have in place to ensure a safe and enjoyable working environment for all of our associates," the company said.
Based in St. Louis, Wehrenberg -- dating to 1906 as the self-professed oldest family owned and operated theater group in the country -- has paid $25,080 on allegations that it also allowed young workers to operate motor vehicles.
Messages left Tuesday with Regal and Wehrenberg were not immediately returned.
The Labor Department said the companies have agreed to put in place compliance and training programs. Regal Cinemas is showing a child-labor public service announcement about workplace safety at all of its 458 digital cinema sites in 39 states.
According to federal law, workers 14 or 15 may do certain occupations outside school hours, but not before 7 a.m. or later than 7 p.m., or past 9 p.m. from June 1 until Labor Day. Such workers also may not work more than three hours on a school day, 18 hours in a school week, or eight hours on a non-school day and 40 hours in a week when school isn't in session.