Phoenix (AFP) – Caroline Redindo’s restaurant is just 900 square feet in size, and the kitchen where other Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Latino foods appear is very small.
The young teens she has hired for years to work as a hostess at her Sofrita restaurant in the small suburb of Fountain Hills northeast of Phoenix sometimes sit at bus tables and have to leave dishes in the kitchen.
This simple act of hot water made her with the Arizona Workplace Safety Agency, which swooped in and fined a maximum of $800 for endangering teens aged 14 to 15 by allowing them into the cooking zone. They also slapped her a $200 fine because they said she did not immediately turn over the time card records.
But Redindo decided to fight, insisting that she had done nothing wrong. The fine was appealed by the Arizona Industrial Commission.
She has won twice, including in the Court of Appeals, which said in its ruling on Thursday that the panel was completely wrong when it said a law forbidding young teens from cooking and baking meant they could never enter the restaurant’s kitchen. They also threw a record-keeping fine, saying the commission had overstepped its bounds.
The administrative law judge who overturned the fines last year said adhering to the commission’s interpretation would essentially ban 14- to 15-year-olds from working at an Arizona restaurant.
Redendo’s problems began in September 2018 with an anonymous complaint to the commission alleging that she was hiring and working with children under the age of 16 for longer than permitted and without breaks. The commission asked her for the records, and six months later she sent an investigator who seemed to focus on the flight attendants going into the kitchen.
In April 2020, the commission fined her a maximum of $1,000.
Redindo said she couldn’t run her business if her hostesses couldn’t set foot in the kitchen. As one of the few employers in the city willing to hire high school children aged 14 to 15, she said if the commission’s citation is upheld, it means they have no jobs.
She also said she knows that the teens she has hired as flight attendants have not been harmed.
“That’s what kids usually start with, and it was the admission that I was putting children and teens at risk, which I wasn’t,” Redindo said. “So I couldn’t agree to the $1,000 fine.”
The industry body said the law bars workers under the age of 16 from being in the kitchen, even if it was simply entering the shop using the back door or entering briefly to throw away soiled dishes.
The judge disagreed in June 2021 and struck down the three workplace safety citations and a $800 fine. Administrative Law Judge Jonathan Hauer also threw in the record-keeping offense, saying the commission had already received some records and had no basis for a separate $200 fine.
The commission then appealed, and the state appeals court finally upheld Redindo on Thursday. The three-judge panel said the law bars teens under 16 from “baking” and “cooking.”
Judge David D.
A commission spokesman had no immediate comment on Friday on the ruling.
Redindo’s attorney, Douglas Schumacher, said he took up the case for free because Redindo is known in the city for its community involvement, including donating food and other aid to local causes, especially schools.
“She’s a very nice lady who not only runs her business but has done a lot of things for the kids,” Schumacher said on Friday.
He said he really thought the committee got out of line.
“Basically it felt like the charges weren’t just rolled around in the beginning, but the industrial committee was kind of overly aggressive on all fronts in pursuing them,” Schumacher said.
Redindo, who is from Puerto Rican, has run Sufrita for over 12 years, and her children worked there when they were teenagers.
“My kids are older now, but I have four boys. They started there,” she said. “I was humiliated because I am part of the community.”