Many teens’ first job is as part of the food service industry. Although the youngest workers usually receive entry-level positions such as busing tables or working in a fast-food kitchen, some teens work as wait staff at restaurants. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act doesn’t directly address child labor in the food service industry, let alone in a position as specific as a waitress, leaving states and employers free to set their own laws and policies for the minimum age to work as a waitress.
Federal Child Labor Laws
While the Fair Labor Standards Act serves as the primary federal legislation governing workplace practices, it also allows employers leeway to manage their business as needed. Federal law sets the minimum age to work most jobs, including as a waitress, as 14. Once a child reaches the age of 16, no federal restrictions limit the amount of hours per week or times at which a waitress may be scheduled.
Child labor laws vary widely by state, so minors who wish to work as waitresses may face much stricter regulation from their state when they seek a position. Many states require minors to receive work permits, either to work during traditional school hours or for general employment, before they may work in any capacity. In addition, many states limit the number of hours a 14- or 15-year-old may work in a shift or a week, and many states place restrictions on shift times and lengths for all workers under 18. Consult your state department of labor for details about youth employment in your state.
As no federal liquor-law legislation exists, state law exclusively determines which age requirements, if any, apply to servers who work in a restaurant that serves alcohol. Most states require that waitresses be at least 18 to serve alcoholic drinks, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, although restrictions vary around the country. In some states, restaurants work around these laws by allowing underage waitresses to wait tables, with an adult temporarily stepping in to serve to customers.
The Fair Labor Standards Act offers exemptions to family businesses that employ children under the age of 16 in positions declared non-hazardous by the U.S. Department of Labor. Because of this exemption, a 13-year-old waitress may work in a restaurant owned by her parents, although state laws may restrict family employment activities. Liquor laws are independent from labor law, and family restaurants usually don’t receive an exemption to minimum-age requirements to serve alcohol.