PHOENIX (AP) — Carolyn Redendo's restaurant is just 900 square feet, and the kitchen where she turns out Puerto Rican, Cuban and other Latin food is tiny.
The young teenagers she's hired for years to work as hostesses in her Sofrita restaurant in the small northeast Phoenix suburb of Fountain Hills sometimes bus tables and have to drop off the dishes in the kitchen.
That simple chore got her in hot water with Arizona's workplace safety agency, which swooped in and fined her the maximum $800 for putting 14- and 15-year-old teens at risk by allowing them in the cooking area. They also slapped her with a $200 fine because they said she didn't promptly turn over time card records.
But Redendo decided to fight, insisting that she had done nothing wrong. She appealed the fine from the Industrial Commission of Arizona.
She won, twice, including at the Court of Appeals, which said in a ruling Thursday that the commission was flat wrong when it said a law barring young teens from cooking and baking meant they could never step into a restaurant kitchen. They also tossed the record-keeping fine, saying the commission overstepped its bounds.
An administrative law judge who threw out 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 problems started in September 2018 with an anonymous complaint to the commission alleging she was hiring kids under 16 and working them longer than allowed and without breaks. The commission asked her for records, and six months later sent an investigator, who seemed focused on the hostesses going into the kitchen.
In April 2020, the commission hit her with the maximum $1,000 fine.
Redendo said she could not run her business if her hostesses could never step foot in the kitchen. And as one of the few employers in town willing to hire 14- and 15-year-old high school kids, she said if the commission citation were upheld it would mean no jobs for them.
She also said she knew the teens she hires as hostesses had not been put in harm's way.
“That’s what kids that young usually start out with, and it was admitting that I was putting children, teenagers in danger, which I wasn’t,” Redendo said. “So I just couldn’t agree to the $1,000 fine.”
The Industrial Commission said the law bars workers under age 16 from being in the kitchen, even if it just to enter the shop using the back door or briefly stepping inside to drop off dirty dishes.
A judge disagreed in June 2021 and threw out the three workplace safety citations and the $800 fine. Administrative Law Judge Jonathan Hauer also tossed the record-keeping violation, saying the commission had actually received some records and had no basis for the separate $200 fine.
The commission then appealed, and the state Court of Appeals finally sided with Redendo on Thursday. The three-judge panel said the law only bars teens 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 drop dishes in a busser’s tub,” Presiding Judge David D. Weinzweig wrote.
A commission spokesperson provided no immediate comment Friday on the ruling.
Redendo's attorney, Douglas Schumacher, said he took the case free of charge because Redendo is known in town for her community involvement, including donating food and other help to local causes, especially schools.
“She's a super nice lady who's not only run her business but she's done a lot of things for kids,” Schumacher said Friday.
He said he also truly believed that the commission was out of line.
“Basically I felt like the charges were not only trumped up to begin with, but the Industrial Commission was kind of overly aggressive on all fronts in pursuing it,” Schumacher said.
Redendo, who is from Puerto Rico, has run Sofrita for more than 12 years, and her children worked there as teens.
“My kids are older now, but I have four boys. They started there,” she said. “I was like insulted because I’m part of the community.”