Lawmakers in several states pass legislation to allow children to work in more dangerous occupationslonger hours on school nights and in expanded roles, including serving alcohol in bars and restaurants from the age of 14.
Efforts to drastically reduce labor rules are largely led by Republican lawmakers to address worker shortages and, in some cases, run counter to federal regulations.
Child protection advocates fear the measures represent a coordinated push to scale back hard-won protections for minors.
“The consequences are potentially disastrous,” said Reid Maki, director of the Child Labor Coalition, which campaigns against exploitative labor policies. “You can’t balance a perceived labor shortage on the backs of teenage workers.”
Lawmakers have proposed easing child labor laws in at least 10 states in 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 Some bills became law, while others were withdrawn or vetoed.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 relaxing child labor laws to address labor shortages, which are driving up wages and contributing to inflation. Employers have struggled to fill vacancies after a spike in retirements, deaths and illnesses from COVID-19, a drop in legal immigration and other factors.
The labor market is one of the tightest since World War II, with an unemployment rate of 3.4%, the lowest in 54 years.
Getting more children into the labor market is of course not the only way to solve the problem. Economists point to several other strategies the country can use to ease labor shortages without asking children to work longer hours or in hazardous environments.
The most obvious is encourage immigration, which is politically divisive but has been a cornerstone of the country’s ability to grow for years in the face of an aging population. Other strategies could be to encourage older workers to delay their retirement, to broaden opportunities for formerly incarcerated people and making childcare more affordable, so parents have more flexibility to work.
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 limit nationwide, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The Ohio legislature is on track to pass a bill allowing 14- and 15-year-old students to work until 9 p.m. during the school year with their parents’ permission. That’s later than federal law allows, so a companion measure asks the U.S. Congress to change its own laws.
Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, students this age can only work until 7 p.m. during the school year. Congress passed the law in 1938 to prevent children from being exposed to unsafe conditions and abusive practices in mines, factories, farms, and street trades.
Republican Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed legislation in March eliminating permits that required employers to verify a child’s age and parental consent. Without a work permit requirement, companies caught violating child labor laws can more easily claim ignorance. Other measures to relax child labor laws have been enacted in New Jersey, New Hampshire and Iowa.
Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation last year allowing teens ages 16 and 17 to work unsupervised in child care centers. The state legislature this month approved a bill allowing teens that age to serve alcohol in restaurants. It would also be extend working hours for miners. Reynolds, who said in April she was more supportive of youth employment, has until June 3 to sign or veto the measure.
Republicans dropped provisions in a version of the bill allowing children between the ages of 14 and 15 to work in hazardous occupations, including mining, logging and meatpacking. But it retained some provisions that the Labor Department says violate federal law, including allowing children as young as 14 to work briefly in freezers and meat coolers, and extending work hours in industrial laundries and assembly lines.
Teenage workers are more likely to accept low pay and less likely to unionize or lobby for better working conditions, said Maki, of the Child Labor Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy network.
“There are employers who benefit from having docile teenage workers,” Maki said, adding that teenagers are easy targets for industries that rely on on vulnerable populations such as immigrants and formerly incarcerated for dangerous jobs.
The Department of Labor reported in February that child labor violations have increased nearly 70% since 2018. The agency is strengthening enforcement and asking Congress to authorize larger fines against violators.
He fined one of the nation’s largest meatpacking sanitation contractors $1.5 million in February after investigators found the company illegally employed more than 100 children in eight states. Child laborers cleaned bone saws and other dangerous equipment in meatpacking 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 Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political network and the National Business Federation independents, which generally aligns itself with the Republicans.
The conservative Opportunity Solutions Project and its parent organization, the Florida-based think tank Foundation for Government Accountability, have helped lawmakers in Arkansas and Missouri draft bills to roll back child labor protections, reported the Washington Post. Allied groups and lawmakers often say their efforts are aimed at expanding parental rights and giving teens more work experience.
“There’s no reason anyone has to get government permission to get a job,” Arkansas Republican Rep. Rebecca Burkes, who sponsored the bill to eliminate child work permit. “It’s just about eliminating the necessary bureaucracy and taking the decision of whether their child can work away from parents.”
Margaret Wurth, 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 the power of the workers”.
Current laws fail to protect many working children, Wurth said.
She wants lawmakers to end exceptions for child labor in agriculture. Federal law allows children 12 and older to work on farms for any length of time outside of school hours, with parental permission. Farm workers over the age of 16 may work at dangerous heights or operate heavy machinery, hazardous tasks reserved for adult workers in other industries.
Twenty-four children died from workplace injuries in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About half of fatal work accidents 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.”
Harm Venhuizen is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Venhuizen on Twitter.