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Multiple states advance child labor law changes that remove protections for children

March 30, 2023
By: Laura Lacy Graham

As states and local economies tackle an ongoing workforce shortage and a tight labor market, some state legislatures are looking to relax or reform their child labor laws. These proposed changes come as U.S. child labor has been a subject of controversy and debate in recent months amid the reports of federal investigations involving under-aged workers in automobile factories and in meat/food processing plants, or investigative exposés involving cereal factories, twelve-year-old roofers, and underage slaughterhouse workers.

While child labor, both federal/state-sanctioned and otherwise, is occurring in every state, a handful of states are either seeking to reduce the restrictions on youth employment or relax their states’ child labor protections, ostensibly to help employers and businesses meet their hiring needs.

Labor experts report that the issue of child or youth labor is a persistent trend, but it is particularly acute when employers or businesses struggle to find talent, as well as during difficult economic times. (The U.S. Labor Department has reported a 70% increase in minors being employed illegally by companies since 2018, many of whom are migrant children who enter the U.S. without a parent.) Some employers grappling with full employment and/or shortages seek to hire younger, cheaper workers — mainly those under 18 — rather than increase the wages and benefits that would attract adult workers.

Increasingly, as workforce pressures build and companies resort to recruiting and hiring youth, it has also resulted in some states reconsidering and amending their child labor laws. One example of such a change is the Youth Hiring Act, passed by Arkansas lawmakers in February and signed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders earlier this month. The newly enacted law ends the requirement that children under the age of 16 must obtain an employment certificate/permission from the Division of Labor in order to be employed or that businesses need to obtain a work permit from the state’s Department of Labor and Licensing if they want to employ a child under 16 years old.

Additionally, under the act, youths will no longer be required to verify proof of their age or get written consent from their parent or guardian as a condition of employment. It also allows employers to pay these minors less than the minimum wage for the first 90 days of their employment.

While the new law signed by Sanders applies to those who are 14 and 15 years old, it does not ensure that youth under 14 will not be employed. There is nothing to prevent a business from knowingly or unknowingly hiring a 13-year-old, given that parental notification, age verification, and reporting requirements are no longer required.

Sanders and supporters of the Youth Hiring Act argue that it will help young people gain valuable work experience and skills, removes an unnecessary burden for businesses, and restores decision-making to parents. Critics argue it undermines and violates elements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Arkansas is not the only state looking to make it easier to employ children.

Ten states have introduced, considered, or passed legislation rolling back protections for young workers in the past two years; in this year alone, at least eight measures that weaken child labor protections have been introduced.

Enacted or attempted child labor reforms (2021-2022)

Last year, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law (Assembly Bill 422) that expands the allowable workweek hours from 40 to 50 for 16- and 17-year-olds and up to 40 hours for 14- and 15-year-olds during summer vacations. It also allows 14- and 15-year-olds to be hired to work 8-hour shifts on holidays while school is in session and removes authority from schools to issue working papers and instead gives that authority to the state’s Department of Labor, which will create a centralized database to register employers and minors.

New Hampshire has also enacted legislation (Senate Bill 345) that both relaxed requirements (lowered the age limit for workers to bus tables where alcohol is served from 15 to 14 years old) and extended the hours that minors can work (increased the hours most 16- and 17-year-olds can work when they are in school from 30 to 35, and up to 48 hours a week during the summer and/or school vacations). Additionally, the legislation also repealed a provision that governed night shifts but does not prohibit them. Now, employees in the 16- and 17-year-old age group can work any shift as long as they do not work more than 35 hours a week while in school.

Wisconsin state legislators attempted to lift restrictions (Senate Bill 322) on work hours during the school year last year, but Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the measure. The Ohio state Senate unanimously passed a similar bill (Senate Bill 251), although it died in the legislature’s lower chamber.

As Axios reports, while the above laws and current legislative proposals below have largely been introduced by Republicans, many of these bills also have received bipartisan support from Democrats, particularly in New Jersey and Ohio.

Introduced child labor reform legislation (2023)

A measure (Senate Bill 175) was recently introduced by a Missouri lawmaker that would prohibit employers from requiring a work permit for children to be employed at their business. Sponsors of the measure argued that much of the bill was dedicated to rules and regulations regarding children who would be employed in the entertainment industry. Still, it relaxed laws across all sectors in Missouri. Additionally, lawmakers also introduced House Bill 960, which would extend the hours children/youth under 18 years of age could work on a school night.

Measures in other states, including Iowa and Minnesota, would allow some teenagers to work in meatpacking plants and construction, respectively.

In Iowa’s House Study Bill (HSB) 134/Senate File (SF) 167: A Bill for an Act Relating to Youth Employment& Making Penalties Applicable, lawmakers are seeking to amend the state’s child labor laws from migratory workers/workforce to general workers/workforce, and applies ages limits (no laborers 13 years or younger); acceptable positions/work for laborers aged 14 to 18; as well as designates the hours (no night shifts and not during school hours, but expands the number of hours during the school year) that a young person can work. The measure also addresses: allowable exceptions to the limitations; expands the types of work 14- and 15-year-olds would be permitted to do as part of approved training programs; would permit the director of Iowa Workforce Development or the Iowa Department of Education to grant exceptions from any provision that restricts the types of jobs 14- and 15-year-olds can do if the work is classified as part of a work-based learning program and strips these workers’ compensation rights; and, would shield businesses from liability for death, injuries or illnesses involving very young workers on the job.

Meanwhile, Georgia and South Dakota both saw bills introduced to ease child-labor protections or alter the hours younger employees can work, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. South Dakota’s measure, House Bill 1180, clarified that no child under the age of 14 can be employed in a factory/workshop or mine, but it would have increased the hours a child under 14 can work. The measure was withdrawn. Nebraska lawmakers introduced Legislative Bill 15 that changes provisions of the state’s Wage and Hour Act to set a subminimum wage for youth.

All of these bills are occurring alongside a rising tide of minors employed in violation of child labor laws, which have more than tripled since 2015. And while youth workers represent a segment of the labor force that has been slowly growing for almost a decade, it has exploded since 2021, driven by migrant youth who are compelled to work due to economic desperation. As The New York Times recently reported, migrant child laborers are at the most risk of being exploited by employers, as are youths from families facing financial needs, at the same time as the systems meant to protect children are being eroded.

 Additionally, labor experts find that more trade-oriented jobs, such as agricultural work, landscaping, and construction, are less likely to employ middle- or upper-class children (who seek jobs that provide greater workplace experience or financial gain), while children in marginalized or lower income families are more likely to be hired for such. In general, many of the jobs that child laborers are tasked with are menial, consisting of nontransferable skills, and/or do not lead to meaningful paths of advancement. These younger workers also risk falling behind in school and are more likely to accept lower or subminimum wages because they are not aware of the value of their labor. Not only can this labor participation adversely affect those young workers, but it also suppresses overall wages and harms the labor market’s long-term prospects.

Children or youth have long been involved in the U.S. workforce — historically normative in factories and agriculture until the FLSA was enacted in 1938. While the FLSA did not seek to eliminate youth workers entirely, it did set the parameters and standards for both agricultural and nonagricultural employment, which greatly curbed the admissible occupations, hours, and regulations involving children. Still, it is estimated that, in any given week, 153,600 children are employed at an activity in violation of the FLSA or state law, with the most common violations involving either working excessive hours or engaging in a hazardous occupation before the age of 18.

workforce, legislation, child labor, reforms, immigration