Several state legislatures are considering bills that would relax child labor restrictions, drawing heated criticism from worker advocates and a federal official who say it’s irresponsible to soften protections amid egregious reports of violations.
The state proposals run the gamut from eliminating work permit requirements for people under 16, as Arkansas did this month, to letting teenage apprentices into ordinarily off-limits workplaces such as factories, as Iowa legislators are considering.
The bills’ supporters include business groups such as the National Federation of Independent Business, plus retail and restaurant associations. They argue the measures could help employers that are struggling to hire enough workers, and say the criticisms unfairly conflate illegal conduct with efforts to let teens work a few more hours on school nights or avoid state-mandated paperwork.
The legislative movement coincides with highly-publicized discoveries of companies illegally employing children, including more than 100 hired to clean meatpacking plants late at night using caustic chemicals in Arkansas and seven other states. The US Department of Labor fined the service contractor that employed them, Packers Sanitation Services Inc. Ltd., $1.5 million and has pledged a renewed focus on federal enforcement of child labor laws.
“It’s a really troubling moment right now,” said Jennifer Sherer of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “We should be strengthening the system, including making sure that the permitting and the permissions and the vetting are stronger, not weaker.”
Many child labor violations involve immigrants, and spring from delays in the way the US processes unaccompanied minors seeking asylum, Sherer and her colleague Nina Mast wrote in a policy paper for EPI.
“Amid a 69% increase in children employed in violation of the law, it is irresponsible for states to consider loosening child labor protections,” Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda said in a written statement. “Federal and state entities should be working together to increase accountability and ramp up enforcement—not make it easier to illegally hire children to do what are often dangerous jobs.”
Varying State Efforts
Pending bills include a Minnesota proposal to let 16- and 17-year-olds work construction jobs, an Ohio bill to extend the school-night cutoff two hours later to 9 p.m. for 14- and 15-year-olds, and a Georgia proposal to imitate Arkansas in eliminating the work permit requirement for some minors.
These follow a handful of similar state measures, such as New Jersey’s change to child labor law in 2022 to let teens work longer hours during their summer break.
This year’s Iowa bill would arguably bring the most drastic change to state child labor law.
The latest version (SF 542), as passed by a Senate committee on March 6, was tweaked to block several types of hazardous workplaces from employing teenage apprentices. But the measure still proposes to let minors work in some manufacturing plants and serve alcohol with a parent’s permission, and it shields employers from lawsuits over a minor’s injury in an on-the-job training or apprenticeship program.
Several proposed state measures could run afoul of stricter federal protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which limits work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds and restricts employment in hazardous occupations for anyone under 18.
“The federal government sets the floor,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former adviser at the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, now a fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. “You can increase protections but you can’t decrease protections unless you change federal regulations.”
A few states are considering moves in the other direction. Among them, an Illinois bill would reduce the number of hours teenagers can work, and a Colorado bill would ensure minors can sue employers in court for injuries related to child labor violations, rather than be limited to relief through worker’s compensation.
In Arkansas, one of the sponsors of the measure eliminating youth work permits also has introduced a bill (SB 390) to increase civil penalties and create potential criminal penalties for child labor violations.
As its legislature debates loosening laws, Minnesota’s labor agency launched a child labor enforcement action March 15, seeking a court order against a meat processor allegedly employing at least eight underage workers.
Many of the proposals to ease youth employment restrictions make relatively minor changes that won’t increase the risk of workplace injuries, according to the business groups that support these measures. They argue the bills could have benefits both for businesses looking to fix staffing shortages and teenagers looking to earn more money and work experience.
The Ohio bill (SB 30) to let younger teens work later hours would leave in place the requirement for parental consent and all existing restrictions on hazardous types of work, said Chris Ferruso, the legislative director for NFIB in the state.
“There’s no expansion here. It is not opening up folks to industries where they may otherwise be prohibited,” he said, adding that criticisms of the Ohio measure in light of the Packers Sanitation case are unfounded.
“This is not, in my opinion, inviting any sort of nefarious activity at all,” Ferruso said. “Those folks are already violating the law and they’re going to be dealt with under the laws that already exist.”
Industry groups including the National Restaurant Association and the National Fireworks Association supported a similar federal proposal last year. The bill, which US Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) introduced in September, would have eased federal law to let 14- and 15-year-olds nationwide work until 9 p.m. on school nights and work up to 24 hours per week during the school year.
Federal Law Tension
Although Johnson’s bill didn’t advance in the last Congress, it’s an indicator of where Sherer says business groups and some conservative policymakers are headed.
“There’s a coordinated push to weaken state standards in ways that contradict what’s in federal law, especially around the hazardous areas of work,” she said. “Their intent is to sharpen that contradiction to ramp up the pressure to weaken the federal standard.”
If Ohio, Iowa, or other states enact laws setting less-protective standards than federal law, then the federal standards would override them, except for a minority of FLSA-exempt small businesses.
“The federal labor laws and the child labor laws are really designed to ensure that children are not working in such a way that it harms their well-being but also to ensure that they’re getting an education,” said Catherine Barbieri, co-chair of the labor and employment department at Fox Rothschild LLP in Philadelphia. “And so at some point, the federal government will likely take the position that the expansion of state laws may, in fact, run contrary to the intent of federal child labor laws.”
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