MADISON, WI – Lawmakers in several states are passing legislation to allow children to work in more hazardous occupations, longer hours on school nights and in expanded roles, including serving alcohol in bars and restaurants starting at age 14.
Efforts to significantly roll back labor regulations are largely driven by Republican lawmakers to address labor shortages, and in some cases run afoul of federal regulations.
Child welfare advocates worry that the measures represent a concerted push to roll back hard-won protections for minors.
“The consequences are potentially catastrophic,” said Reid Mackey, director of the Child Labor Coalition, which opposes labor exploitation policies. “You can’t balance a significant labor shortage on the backs of teenagers.”
Lawmakers have proposed loosening child labor laws in at least 10 states over the past two years, according to a report released last month by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. Some bills became law, while others were withdrawn or vetoed.
Lawmakers in Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa are actively considering loosening child labor laws to address labor shortages that are driving up wages and fueling inflation. Employers are struggling to fill vacancies after a jump in retirements, deaths and illnesses from COVID-19, lower legal immigration and other factors.
The job market is one of the tightest since World War II, with unemployment at 3.4%, the lowest in 54 years.
Getting more children into the labor market is certainly not the only way to solve the problem. Economists point to several other strategies the country could employ to ease labor shortages without requiring children to work longer hours or in hazardous conditions.
The most obvious is allowing more legal immigration, which is politically divisive but has for years been a cornerstone of the country’s ability to thrive in the face of an aging population. Other strategies could include encouraging older workers to delay retirement, expanding opportunities for the formerly incarcerated, and increasing the availability of childcare so that parents have more work flexibility.
In Wisconsin, lawmakers are backing a proposal to allow 14-year-olds to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants. If passed, Wisconsin would have the lowest such limit in the nation, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The Ohio Legislature is set to pass a bill that would allow students ages 14 and 15 to work until 9 p.m. during the school year with parental permission. That’s later than federal law allows, so a companion measure is asking the US Congress to amend its own laws.
Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, students of this age can only work until 7pm during the school year. In 1938, Congress passed a law to prevent children from being exposed to dangerous conditions and abuse in mines, factories, farms, and street vendors.
Republican Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law in March to repeal permits requiring employers to verify a child’s age and parental consent. Without work permit requirements, companies caught violating child labor laws can more easily plead ignorance.
Sanders later signed separate legislation that would increase civil penalties and criminalize child labor violations, but his advocates worry that removing the permit requirement would make it more difficult to investigate violations.
New Jersey, New Hampshire and Iowa have passed other measures to loosen child labor laws.
Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds last year signed legislation allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to work unsupervised in child care centers. This month, the state Legislature approved a bill allowing teenagers of that age to serve alcohol in restaurants. It would also increase the working hours of minors. Reynolds, who said in April she supports more youth employment, has until June 3 to sign or veto the measure.
Republicans removed provisions from their version of the bill that would have allowed children as young as 14 and 15 to work in hazardous industries, including mining, logging and meat processing. But it retained some provisions that the Labor Department says violate federal law, including allowing children as young as 14 to work part-time in freezers and meat coolers, and extending working hours in industrial laundries and assembly lines.
Teens who work are more likely to accept low-wage jobs and less likely to join unions or push for better working conditions, said Mackey of the Child Labor Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy network.
“There are employers who benefit from having docile teenagers,” Mackie said, adding that teenagers are easy targets for industries that depend on vulnerable populations such as immigrants and ex-convicts to fill dangerous jobs.
In February, the Ministry of Labor reported that since 2018, the number of child labor violations has increased by almost 70%. The agency is stepping up enforcement and asking Congress to authorize larger fines against violators.
In February, he fined one of the nation’s largest meat sanitation contractors $1.5 million after investigators found the company illegally employed more than 100 children in eight states. Children cleaned bone saws and other dangerous equipment at meat processing plants, often using dangerous chemicals.
National business lobbyists, chambers of commerce and well-funded conservative groups support state bills to increase teen labor force participation, including the conservative political network Americans for Prosperity and the usually Republican-backed National Federation of Independent Business.
The conservative Opportunity Solutions Project and its parent organization, the Florida-based think tank Foundation for Government Accountability, helped lawmakers in Arkansas and Missouri draft bills to repeal child labor protections, The Washington Post reported. Groups and union lawmakers often say their efforts are aimed at expanding parental rights and giving teens more work experience.
“There’s no reason anyone should have to get a government permit to get a job,” Arkansas Republican Rep. Rebecca Burks, who sponsored the bill to repeal child labor permits, told the House. “It’s simply about removing the necessary red tape and taking away from parents the decision about whether their child can work.”
Margaret Wurt, a children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, a member of the Child Labor Coalition, described bills like the one passed in Arkansas as “attempts to undermine safe and important workplace protections and reduce worker power.”
Current laws do not protect many working children, Wurt said.
She wants lawmakers to repeal exemptions for child labor in agriculture. Federal law allows children 12 and older to work on farms any time outside of school hours with parental permission. Farm workers over the age of 16 may work at dangerous heights or operate heavy machinery, dangerous tasks reserved for adult workers in other industries.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 24 children died from injuries at work in 2021. About half of all workplace deaths occurred on farms, according to a Government Accountability Office report covering child deaths between 2003 and 2016.
“More children die working in agriculture than in any other sector,” Wurth said. “Enforcement won’t do much for child farm workers unless standards improve.”