Home Business America is divided over major efforts to rewrite child labor laws

America is divided over major efforts to rewrite child labor laws

America is divided over major efforts to rewrite child labor laws


As child labor violations soar across the country, dozens of states are ramping up efforts to update child labor laws — with widespread efforts to weaken laws, but some to bolster them as well.

The push for changes to child labor laws arrives as employers — particularly in restaurants and other service-providing industries — have grappled with labor shortages since the beginning of the pandemic, and hired more teenagers whose wages are typically lower than adults’.

Labor experts attribute the spike in child labor violations, which have tripled over the past 10 years according to a Post analysis, to a tight labor market that has prompted employers to hire more teens, as well as migrant children arriving from Latin America. In 2023, teens aged 16 to 19 were working or looking for work at the highest annual rate since 2009, according to Labor Department data.

That’s led to the largest effort in years to change the patchwork of state laws that regulate child labor, with major implications for the country’s youth and the labor market. At least 16 states have one or more bills to weaken their child labor laws and at least 13 are seeking to strengthen them, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute and other sources. Among these states there are 43 bill proposals.

Since 2022, 14 states have passed or enacted new child labor laws.

Federal law forbids all minors from working in jobs deemed hazardous, including those in manufacturing, roofing, meatpacking and demolition. Fourteen and 15-year-olds are not allowed to work past 7 p.m. on school nights or 9 p.m. on weekends.

Most states have laws that are tougher than federal rules, although there is an effort underway led by Republican lawmakers, to undo those restrictions, supported by restaurant associations, liquor associations, and home builders associations.

A Florida-based lobbying group, the Foundation for Government Accountability, which has fought to promote conservative interests such as restricting access to anti-poverty programs, drafted or lobbied for recent bills to strip child labor protections in at least six states.

Among them is Indiana’s new law repealing all work-hour restrictions for 16- and 17-year-olds, who previously couldn’t work past 10 p.m. or before 6 a.m. on school days. Earlier in March, Indiana enacted the law, which also extends legal work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds.

Indiana legislators sparred over the bill, with state Sen. Mike Gaskill (R) saying at a hearing in March, “do not for a second think that this is about the evil employers trying to manipulate and take advantage of kids.” But state Sen. Andrea Hunley (D) called the bill an “irresponsible and dystopian” way of “responding to our workforce shortage.”

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law new changes that allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work seven days in a row. It also removes all hours restrictions for teens in online school or home school, effectively permitting them to work overnight shifts.

Some states have reported soaring numbers of child-labor violations over the past year, with investigators uncovering violations in fast food restaurants, but also in dangerous jobs in meatpacking, manufacturing, and construction, where federal law prohibits minors from working. The U.S. Labor Department alleged in a lawsuit in February that a sanitation company, Fayette Janitorial Service, employed children as young as 13 to clean head splitters and other kill-floor equipment at slaughterhouses on overnight shifts in Virginia and Iowa.

Despite such findings, a new Iowa law signed last year by Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) allows minors in that state to work in jobs previously deemed too hazardous, including in industrial laundries, light manufacturing, demolition, roofing and excavation but not slaughterhouses. Separately, West Virginia enacted a new law this month that allows 16- and 17-year-olds to work some roofing jobs as part of an apprenticeship program.

Six more states are also evaluating bills to lift restrictions preventing minors from working jobs considered dangerous. A Georgia bill would allow 14-year-olds to work in landscaping on factory grounds and other prohibited work sites. Florida’s legislature has passed a law, drafted by the state’s construction industry association, that would allow teens to work certain jobs in residential construction. It’s awaiting approval from DeSantis.

Carol Bowen, chief lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida, testified in favor of the bill in February that the state “has one of the largest skilled work shortages in recent history,” and that the construction industry needs to identify the “next generation.”

Bowen said that the bill limits work for 16- and 17-year-olds to home construction projects, adding that teens wouldn’t be able to work on anything higher than six feet.

In Kentucky, the House has passed a bill that prevents the state from having child labor laws that are stricter than federal protections, in effect removing all limitations on when 16- and 17-year-olds can work, as well as requirements for meal and rest breaks for all minors.

Meanwhile, Alabama, West Virginia, Missouri and Georgia are considering bills this year that would eliminate work permit requirements for minors, which prove age or parental or school permission to work. Most states require these permits. Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) signed a similar bill into law last year.

Republican lawmakers often say they are trying to increase opportunities or bring requirements in line with federal standards when they push to loosen child labor laws. They say that lowering restrictions helps employers fill labor shortages, while improving teenagers’ work ethic and reducing their screen time. Another common refrain is that permitting later work hours allows high school students opportunities similar to varsity athletes whose games often go later than state law allows teens to work.

“These are youth workers that are driving automobiles. They are not children,” said state Rep. Linda Chaney (R), sponsor of Florida’s new bill that expands work hours for 16- and 17-year-olds, during a hearing in December.

Indiana state Sen. Andy Zay (R) who supported the state’s new law extending work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds, told The Washington Post that as a father of five children, including a son who plays high school basketball, he felt saddened by comments from legislators who opposed the law that teens would be abused by working later hours.

“I don’t see that, and I don’t feel that. And, certainly they would have the freedom to move on,” Zay said.

But the spike in child labor violations and the recent deaths of minors illegally employed in dangerous jobs have also prompted a push to strengthen state laws by labor advocates.

The Virginia state legislature unanimously approved a bill in recent weeks that would increase employer penalties for child labor violations from $1,000 to $2,500 for routine violations. It’s awaiting approval from Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R).

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Holly M. Seibold (D-Fairfax), told The Post she was “shocked and horrified” to read recently about poultry plants in Virginia illegally employing migrant children and wrote legislation to raise the penalties.

Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Nebraska and Colorado are also pushing to raise employer penalties for child labor violations, with lawmakers calling them outdated and not substantial enough to deter employers from breaking the law. For example, Iowa fines employers $2,500 for a serious but nonfatal injury of a minor illegally working in a hazardous industry and $500 if there is no serious injury. The new bill proposes an additional $5,000 penalty for an injury that leads to a workers’ compensation case.

Terri Gerstein, director of the Wagner Labor Initiative at New York University, said that the focus on increasing penalties is “good, but alone, is not good enough,” given that many states have very minimal resources dedicated to enforcing laws.

This year, Colorado legislators have introduced the strongest package to crack down on employers that break child labor laws. The legislation would raise fines for child labor violations and deposit them into a fund for enforcement. Lawmakers are also seeking to make information on companies that violate child labor laws publicly available; in many states such information is off-limits to the public. Colorado would also legally protect parents of minors who are employed illegally, as some have faced criminal charges for child abuse.

Colorado state Rep. Sheila Lieder (D), who introduced the bill, told The Post that Colorado’s child labor laws aren’t punitive enough to dissuade employers from violating child labor laws, with just a $20 penalty per offense.

“The fine in Colorado is like a couple cups of coffee at a brand-name coffee store,” Lieder said. “I was just, like, there’s something more that has to be done.”

Jacqueline Aguilar, a 21-year-old college student in Alamosa, Colo., who supports the bill, worked in the lettuce and potato fields on Colorado’s Eastern Plains from the time she was 13, alongside her immigrant parents, to buy school clothes.

“Laws have to be stricter because a lot of people don’t report [violations],” said Aguilar, who worked 12-hour shifts in the fields starting at 4:30 a.m. growing up. She said she had no knowledge of her labor rights at the time. “Once I started getting older and my mom became disabled because of the job, it changed my perspective on children working.”


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