Kids at work: States try to ease child labor laws at behest of industry
A child laborer (Photo by Lewis Hine, via NC Museum of History).
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers in 11 states have either passed or introduced laws to roll back child labor laws — a push that’s come from industry trade organizations and mostly conservative legislators as businesses scramble for low-wage workers.

In the past two years, those states have moved to extend working hours for children, eliminate work permit requirements and lower the age for teens to handle alcohol or work in hazardous industries. At the same time, there has been a 69% increase in children employed illegally by companies since 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

It is “irresponsible for states to consider loosening child labor protections,” Seema Nanda, the U.S. solicitor of labor, said in a statement to States Newsroom.

“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,” she said, adding that the Labor Department will continue to enforce longstanding federal child labor protections.

This year alone, lawmakers in seven states, including Iowa, have introduced or passed bills that would ease child labor laws.

“While we’re finding out that child labor is more pervasive and more dangerous than we thought, (these) states have decided, ‘Oh, now’s a good time to weaken the child labor laws,’” said Reid Maki, the director of child labor issues and coordinator at the Child Labor Coalition. “So that’s appalling. That’s really just mind-boggling.”

In the Midwest, Ohio legislators reintroduced a bill to extend the working hours for teens year-round from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Minnesota lawmakers introduced a bill to roll back requirements that bar 16- and-17-year-olds from working in construction.

The Iowa Legislature is currently considering a bill that would allow exceptions to state law prohibiting children aged 14 to 17 from working in more dangerous industries, such as roofing and mining, among other provisions that have drawn scrutiny from labor and children advocacy groups.

“We got a bill that’s written by industry groups and multinational corporations that are looking for cheap labor out of our kids, and it’s really disappointing,” said Charlie Wishman, the president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.

But Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, said there’s valuable experience to be gained as teens work in business and learn communications skills, as well as the importance of showing up for a job on time. “It, you know, teaches the kids a lot, and if they have the time to do it, and they want to earn some additional money, I don’t think we should, you know, discourage that,” she said.

In the South, the Arkansas Legislature passed a law that eliminates age verification requirements for children under 16 to prove their age to get a job, and Missouri legislators introduced a bill that would extend working hours for teens 16 and older, from 7 p.m. on a school night to 10 p.m.

Georgia Republicans introduced and then withdrew a bill that would eliminate work permits for minors 18 and younger, among other things.

And in the Great Plains, South Dakota Republicans introduced a bill to extend working hours for children 14 and under. But lawmakers quickly withdrew it.

Farming, logging

Maki argued that child labor laws need to be strengthened, particularly relating to work in agriculture. Children as young as 12 can work on a farm because agriculture workers and domestic workers were put in a separate category in the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 that established federal child labor laws.

That distinction was due to racist policymaking by Southern Democrats because during the 20th century, farmworkers were predominantly Black, Maki said.

“We think it’s a legacy of racism, and you know, a lot of the kids working now in factories, and in the field are brown,” he said. “And I think that’s part of the reason why the law hasn’t been fixed.”

The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs estimates that there are between 400,000 to 500,000 children working on farms in the U.S.

Meanwhile, there’s also a bipartisan push in Congress to allow teens to work in family logging businesses. Members from states with logging interests are backing it, as is the logging industry.

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, a Republican, and Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent, have introduced the “Future Logging Careers Act” that would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to “work in certain mechanized logging operations under parental supervision.” In the House, it’s sponsored by Maine Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, and Pennsylvania Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, a Republican.

“Idaho’s logging industry has long been a family trade, but current law is hampering its future by preventing young men and women from working in their family’s businesses,” Risch said in a statement.

Teens in restaurants

Jennifer Sherer, who published a report for the non-profit, left-leaning Economic Policy Institute with Nina Mast tracking states rolling back child labor laws, said in an interview that some industry groups have different interests when it comes to child labor laws, but they share a common desire to ease restrictions.

For example, the restaurant, hospitality and retail industries have been vocal in wanting to extend hours for teens to work during the school year and during vacation, as well as revising “restrictions on the age at which teens can begin … serving alcohol in restaurants and bars.”

“They’ve been very clear about hoping to access larger numbers of young workers and also to be able to work them for longer hours,” Sherer, a senior state policy coordinator at the Economic Policy Institute, said.

In September, the National Restaurant Association expressed its support for legislation by U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act and allow 14-and-15-year-olds to work between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. year round, as well as allow up to 24 hours of work a week.

“If a high school student can play in a football game until 9 p.m., or play video games late into the evening, they should also be allowed to hold a job if they wish to,” Johnson said in a statement.

Last year, two states — New Hampshire and New Jersey — passed laws that would extend working hours for minors and lower the age for minors to serve alcohol.

In New Hampshire, lawmakers passed a bill that lowers the age limit for students to bus tables where alcohol is served from 15 to 14 and increases the hours most 16- and 17-year-olds can work when they’re in school. That bill was supported by the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association and state Liquor Commission.

In New Jersey, teens no longer need parental consent to obtain work permits, and those 16- and 17-year-olds are allowed to work up to 50 hours a week — up to 10 hours each day — when they aren’t in school. The bill signed into law by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy also updates the hours 14- and 15-year-olds can work — a total of 40 hours a week during the summer months.

It was supported by tourism industry groups like Six Flags and the New Jersey commerce associations.

In Wisconsin, the Legislature tried to expand working hours for children as young as 14, but Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the bill in 2022.

Lower wages for youth

Lawmakers in Nebraska introduced legislation that would allow children to be paid less, a minimum wage of $9 for 14- to 17-year-olds compared to the state’s minimum wage of $10.50 for 2023. That bill would also set a minimum training wage for employees between 18 and 20 at $9.25 per hour through 2023, and 75% of the regular minimum wage from 2027 onward.

“There is a view out there, amongst many people, that you can pay kids less because … their labor must be worth less because they’re kids,” said the Iowa Federation of Labor’s Wishman.

“We definitely disagree with that,” he said.

The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Nebraska Grocery Industry Association have expressed their support for that bill.

Mast, with the Economic Policy Institute, said that Nebraska proposal would go against a ballot measure that the state voted on last year agreeing to raise the minimum wage from $9 to $15 an hour.

Migrant minors at risk

Other industries, such as meatpacking, construction and other manufacturing sectors, are “clearly looking to open up more job categories to youth, sort of dipping their toes into whether they can peel back some of those hazardous orders that have kept certain work sites or specific occupations off limits (to youths),” Sherer said.

Particularly vulnerable to child labor law violations are migrant youth who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border alone.

A year-long investigation by the New York Times found hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children working dangerous jobs in violation of child labor laws.

From October 2021 to September 2022, there were about 130,000 unaccompanied youth who were released to sponsors in the U.S., according to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. States that have seen some of the biggest increases in unaccompanied children are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas, according to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“What we’re really seeing is employers hoping to take advantage of a broken immigration system and then roll back child labor standards, so that there are no consequences for violating the sort of bare minimal protections that are in place to prevent exploitation of youth,” Sherer said.

Annie Smith, a law professor who directs the Civil Litigation and Advocacy Clinic at the University of Arkansas School of Law, said children who are undocumented or have family members who are undocumented may be afraid to report worker violations for fear of deportation.

“What I can say from representing undocumented clients and other forms of labor exploitation, is that there’s just a higher risk of all forms of exploitation among those who have tenuous or no immigration status, so that’s certainly also true for children,” Smith said.

In late February, the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services announced new efforts to crack down on child labor, following the New York Times report.

Investigations, violations on the rise

The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division said that since 2015, the agency has seen “increases in child labor investigations and violations.”

During fiscal 2022, there were 835 companies that employed more than 3,800 children in violation of labor laws. That’s an increase from fiscal 2015, when 542 companies employed more than 1,000 children in violation of labor laws.

The number of children reported working in hazardous occupations such as roofing also has risen. In fiscal 2015, there were 355 children working in violation of hazardous occupations and in fiscal 2022, there were 688, the highest number since fiscal 2011.

The Department of Labor recently issued civil fines for Packers Sanitation Services Inc, a company that cleans meatpacking plants, for $1.5 million for employing children as young as 13 to work in dangerous conditions.

The agency investigated 13 plants in eight states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and Tennessee. Packers employed more than 20 children at three meatpacking plants in Nebraska, Kansas and Minnesota.

The agency found that children ages 13 to 17 spent overnight shifts cleaning equipment such as head splitters, back saws and brisket saws, and were exposed to dangerous chemicals such as ammonia. Three of those 102 kids were injured on the job.

U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, and Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, on March 30 wrote to the CEO of Packers, asking if the company had implemented changes to prevent hiring underage workers.

Sen. Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, has introduced a bill to establish criminal penalties and increase maximum fines for child labor violations. But it appears it won’t get far.

The bill has no Republican co-sponsors and is unlikely to pass Congress with a Republican-controlled House and a 60-vote threshold needed to pass the Senate.

Child labor laws date to 1836

Laura Kellams, the Northwest Arkansas director for the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said child labor laws are not only meant to protect a child from partaking in hazardous work environments, but also to guarantee that children go to school.

Two young boys stand on electric looms in order to reach the top shelf while at work in a cotton mill in Georgia. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“The laws are designed to prevent injury, and they’re also designed to protect a child’s ability and opportunity for education,” she said.

Massachusetts was the first state to pass child labor laws in 1836 that required children under 15 who worked in factories to attend school for a minimum of three months out of the year.

It would take a little over a century to have a national labor law protecting children.

But in Arkansas, advocates fear education for vulnerable students is at risk.

In a new Arkansas law that overhauls public education, there is a provision that allows eighth-grade students to take a “career ready pathway,” in which one of those paths is “immediately enter a career field.”

Josh Price with the nonprofit immigrants’ rights group Arkansas United said the language allows schools to recommend that a student in eighth grade — about 13 to 14 years old — can drop out of school and go straight to work instead.

“We fear this will happen all too often, particularly to Black and brown children and especially if they are from the immigrant community and English is not their first language,” Price said.

— Robin Opsahl and Casey Quinlan contributed to this report.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: info@iowacapitaldispatch.com. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.