As federal authorities in the United States try to prosecute growing child labor violations, some state lawmakers are looking to allow minors to work longer hours and in higher-risk jobs.
Lawmakers, mostly Republicans, argue that easing child labor regulations could address the national labor shortage.
Ohio’s Congress is in the process of passing a law that would allow 14- and 15-year-old students to work until 9:00 p.m. during the school year with parental consent.
But child protection activists fear the measures mark a concerted effort to repeal contested protections for children.
“The consequences could be devastating,” said Reed Maki, director of the Child Labor Coalition, which campaigns against sweatshop policies. “You can’t make up for a perceived shortage of labor at the expense of teen workers.”
Over the past two years, lawmakers have proposed relaxing child employment rules in at least 10 states, according to a report released last month by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning group. Some proposals became law, while others were withdrawn or vetoed.
Lawmakers in Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa are considering loosening laws to deal with the labor shortage. Employers are struggling to fill positions after a decline in retirements, an increase in deaths and illnesses from COVID-19, legal immigration and other factors.
Wisconsin lawmakers support a proposal that would allow 14-year-olds to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants. If approved, Wisconsin could have the lowest minimum in that category in the entire country, according to the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse.
Ohio’s Congress is in the process of passing a law that would allow 14- and 15-year-old students to work until 9:00 p.m. during the school year with parental consent. It allows later federal law, so an additional measure calls for the US Congress to amend its rules.
Under the Fair Employment Standards Act, minors may only work until 7:00 p.m. during the school year. Congress passed legislation in 1938 to prevent children from being exposed to dangerous conditions and abusive practices in mines, factories, farms, and street businesses.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican, signed a law in March that removes permit requirements for employers to verify a minor’s age and parental consent. Without that requirement, companies violating child labor laws could more easily plead ignorance. Other measures to loosen child labor laws have been passed in New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Iowa.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed legislation last year allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to attend preschool without supervision. The state legislature passed a rule this month allowing restaurants to serve alcohol to teens under that age. This will also increase the working hours of minors. Reynolds, who said in April that he favors more youth working, has until June 3 to support or veto that measure.
Republicans removed provisions from an earlier version of the rule that allowed 14- and 15-year-olds to work in hazardous fields such as mining, logging and meatpacking. But it kept some parts that the Department of Employment says violate federal laws, such as one that allows children 14 and older to work in cold rooms and another that allows industrial laundries and assembly lines. Extends working hours.
Maki of the Child Labor Coalition, a Washington-based activist network, said teen workers are more likely to accept lower wages and less likely to unionize for better working conditions.
“There are employers who benefit from a few submissive teen workers,” Maki said. Teens, he said, are easy targets for industries that rely on vulnerable populations like immigrants and ex-prisoners to fill dangerous jobs.
The Labor Department reported in February that child labor violations had increased by nearly 70% since 2018. The agency has increased its inspections and asked Congress to allow increased fines for violators.
In February, the department fined one of the largest meat facility cleaning contractors $1.5 million after the company was found to be illegally employing more than 100 children in eight different states. Child workers cleaned bone saws and other dangerous equipment in meat processing plants, often using dangerous chemicals.
National business lobbyists, chambers of commerce and well-funded conservative groups support state laws to increase teen participation in the workforce. It matters to Americans to Prosper, a conservative political network, and the National Federation of Independent Business, which aligns itself with Republicans.
According to The Washington Post, the conservative group Opportunity Solutions Project and its parent organization, the Florida think tank Foundation for Government Accountability, helped lawmakers in Arkansas and Missouri draft bills to remove child labor protections. Like-minded groups and legislators often say their efforts are aimed at increasing parental rights and giving teens more work experience.
“There’s no reason why anyone needs the government’s permission to do a job,” Arkansas Republican Rep. Rebecca Berkus, who introduced legislation to eliminate work permits for minors, told the State House. “It’s just trying to cut out necessary red tape and take away the parent’s choice of whether their child can work.”
Human Rights Watch children’s rights researcher Margaret Worth, a member of the Child Labor Coalition, describes the rules passed in Arkansas as “an attempt to undermine vital and safe workplace protections and reduce the power of workers.”
Worth said current laws do not protect many child workers.
She wants legislators to remove exceptions 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. Farmers 16 and older may work at dangerous heights or operate heavy machinery, high-risk tasks reserved for adult workers in other industries.
In 2021, 24 children will die from workplace injuries in the United States, according to the Bureau of Employment Statistics. According to the Government Accountability Office’s report on child deaths between 2003 and 2016, nearly half of fatal workplace accidents occurred on farms.
“More children die working in agriculture than in any other sector,” Worth said. “If standards are not improved then monitoring is not going to be of much help to child agricultural workers.”