By BOB CHRISTIE, Associated Press
PHOENIX (AP) — Carolyn Redendo’s restaurant is just 900 square feet, and the kitchen, where she prepares Puerto Rican, Cuban and other Latin American dishes, is tiny.
The young teenagers she employed for years as hostesses at her Sofrita restaurant in Fountain Hills, a small northeastern Phoenix suburb, sometimes have to drive tables and carry dishes to the kitchen.
That simple task got her in hot water with the Arizona Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which lashed out and fined her the maximum $800 for putting 14- and 15-year-old teens at risk by letting them in the cooking area. They also slapped her with a $200 fine for saying she did not provide the time card records immediately.
But Redendo decided to fight, insisting she had done nothing wrong. She appealed the fine to the Industrial Commission of Arizona.
She won twice, including before the Court of Appeal, which said in a ruling on Thursday that the commission was dead wrong when it said a law banning young teenagers from cooking and baking meant they could never set foot in a restaurant kitchen . They also threw out the fine for the records, saying the commission exceeded its limits.
An administrative judge who issued the fines last year said upholding the commission’s interpretation would essentially bar 14- and 15-year-olds from ever working in an Arizona restaurant.
Redendo’s troubles began in September 2018 with an anonymous complaint to the Commission alleging that she was hiring children under the age of 16 and working overtime without breaks. The commission asked them for records and six months later sent an investigator who apparently focused on the hostesses who went into the kitchen.
In April 2020, the commission gave her the maximum fine of $1,000.
Redendo said she couldn’t run her business if her hostesses could never set foot in the kitchen. And as one of the few employers in the city willing to hire 14- and 15-year-old high school kids, she said if the commission’s subpoena were upheld, it would mean no jobs for her.
She also said she knew the teenagers she hired as hostesses were not put at risk.
“That’s what kids that young usually start with, and it was the admission that I put children and teenagers at risk, which I wasn’t,” Redendo said. “So I just couldn’t agree to the $1,000 fine.”
The industry commission said the law bans workers under the age of 16 from being in the kitchen, even if they’re just entering the store through the back door or stepping in briefly to drop off dirty dishes.
A judge disagreed in June 2021, throwing out the three workplace safety subpoenas and the $800 fine. Administrative Judge Jonathan Hauer also threw out the records violation, saying the commission did indeed receive some records and no basis for the separate $200 fine.
The Commission then appealed, and the State Court of Appeal finally sided with Redendo on Thursday. The three-judge panel said the law only bans youth under 16 from “baking” and “cooking.”
“Nothing in the statute supports the commission’s reading that employers must prevent minors from entering the kitchen to throw dishes into the tub of a bus,” wrote presiding judge David D. Weinzweig.
A commission spokesman gave no immediate comment on the verdict on Friday.
Redendo’s attorney, Douglas Schumacher, said he took on the case free of charge because Redendo is known in the city for its community involvement, including donating food and other aid to local causes, particularly schools.
“She is a super nice woman who not only runs her business but has also done a lot for children,” said Schumacher on Friday.
He said he really believed that the Commission was stepping out of line.
“Basically, I had the feeling that the charges were not just fabricated, but that the Industrial Commission was somehow too aggressive in the prosecution on all fronts,” said Schumacher.
Redendo, who is from Puerto Rico, has run Sofrita for more than 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 insulted because I’m part of the community.”
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed.