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What's Driving the Changes to Child Labor Laws?

A number of red states are moving to weaken child labor laws. Sponsors say they just want kids to be able to work, but critics complain companies are already exploiting vulnerable populations.

Fast-food workers protest at the closed Popeyes Louisiana Chicken on International Boulevard near 70th Avenue in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, May 18, 2023.
Popeyes shut down a location in Oakland, Calif., last year in the face of complaints about child labor and other workforce violations.
Jane Tyska/TNS
In Brief:
  • About half the states have introduced bills in recent years to loosen restrictions on child labor.

  • Sponsors, almost always Republicans, describe them as an effort simply to get out of the way of children who want to work.

  • Critics warn they’re encouraging the exploitation of children and putting more of them in danger.

  • Last week, the Kentucky House passed a bill that would abolish the state’s child labor laws, in effect replacing them with looser federal standards. The bill would also increase the number of hours that 16- and 17-year-olds can work on school days from six to eight. They’d be able to work up to 30 hours per week during the school year, or even more if their parents approve and they maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average.

    Several Republican lawmakers joined with Democrats in opposition, including GOP Whip Jason Nemes, but the bill passed easily. “Our current statutes and regulations unnecessarily restrict the number of hours needed to work, often preventing them from seeking an opportunity to help them pay for college, learn new skills and prepare for the future,” said bill sponsor Phillip Pratt, who owns a landscaping and lawn care company.

    Kentucky is far from the only state to consider loosening restrictions for child labor in a variety of industries. Since 2021, legislators in 23 states have introduced at least 61 bills with the same goal: changing labor restrictions for minors, whether it's working more hours or days, or allowing minors to serve alcohol.

    Supporters of these measures describe them in terms of opportunity, offering children the chance not only to earn money but develop skills. “In Iowa, we understand there is dignity in work and we pride ourselves on our strong work ethic,” GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds said in signing a looser child labor law last year. “Instilling those values in the next generation and providing opportunities for young adults to earn and save to build a better life should be available.”

    But it’s not just young people that proponents of looser child labor laws have in mind. The nation has faced a workforce shortage since the pandemic, with millions of workers leaving due to death, disability or retirement.

    “Corporations have a long history of exploiting every tragedy in front of them for their gain, and to the detriment of many for the wealth of the few,” says Jessie Ulibarri, co-executive director of State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a progressive policy group. “It makes sense that corporations are using their significant financial and legislative power to put kids on the front lines of some of the most dangerous jobs. It will help their bottom line.”

    Not Just Danger But Death

    The risks are obvious. Last year in Wisconsin, Michael Schuls, a 16-year-old high school student, died in a sawmill accident. Duvan Pérez, another 16-year-old, became the third employee to die since 2020 at a Mississippi poultry plant due to a machinery accident. Federal law makes it illegal for children to work at slaughterhouses due to the danger of the work, but Pérez had stolen the identity of someone twice his actual age.

    Some industries are inherently dangerous, such as construction, meat processing, factory work and agriculture. The threat of accidental injuries and deaths becomes greater when children are in the workplace. Their lighter frames, slower reaction times and shorter heights mean that children can get injured or even killed at higher proportions than adults in the same industry. Workforce experts say that further relaxation of existing child labor protections at a time of already increasing numbers of child labor violations will only make the problem worse.

    Of the children working the night shift at plants and seeing increased injuries and deaths, most are migrants or from low-income communities, who may be drawn to dangerous but well-paying jobs out of necessity or desperation. Often, these teenagers are only able to get jobs working in dangerous environments with limited training and sleep. “The legislation we’re seeing exploits the most vulnerable kids in our community,” Ulibarri says, “Legislators who are introducing these bills do not want to grant either innocence of childhood or humanity to many of these kids, the most vulnerable in society, who are easily thrown away.”

    Setting Up Potential Violations

    Bill sponsors, of course, frame their efforts in a more flattering light. In effect, they argue that a little hard work never hurt anyone. GOP state Rep. Jeff Holcomb, who sponsored a bill to loosen child labor law that passed the Florida House in February, said that he has worked since he was 12. “I worked all the time because that is the work ethic that got me here today,” he said. “I wouldn’t have walked enough doors to win an election if I hadn’t got that work ethic at 12. Folks, we don’t need to coddle our kids. We don’t have to wrap them in bubble wrap. We need to let them work, if they want to.”

    As states pass bills that weaken established child labor protections, one unintended consequence could be setting up businesses to break federal law, says Terri Gerstein, the director of NYU Wagner Labor Initiative. “What they’re doing is misleading employers in their state, putting them on a path towards federal violations, in addition to really putting kids at risk,” she says.

    On Monday, Gerstein released a report, in conjunction with the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-backed think tank, that encourages states to deter and address child labor violations and strengthen protections for child workers.
    Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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