U.S. states loosen child labor laws as violations keep soaring

The fight continues: U.S. states loosen child labor laws as violations keep soaring

  • Published on
    April 4, 2024
  • Written by:
    Rebekah Enoch
  • Category:
    Child Slavery
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Recent analysis shows that over the past 10 years child labor violations across the U.S. have tripled, reports the Washington Post. Investigators have uncovered an uptick in labor violations in standard work for teens, like fast food-restaurants and other service industries. Multiple instances of minors working in dangerous jobs that federal law prohibits, like meatpacking, manufacturing, and construction, have also been uncovered at increasing rates. Despite that, at least 16 states have one or more bills to weaken their child labor laws. What’s going on?

“Irresponsible and dystopian” way of “responding to workforce shortage”

Restaurants and other service-providing industries have been struggling with labor shortages since the beginning of the pandemic which has led to record levels of teens being hired to fill those gaps. According to Labor Department data, in 2023 teens were working or looking for work at the highest rate since 2009 leading to the largest effort in years to change the “patchwork of state laws” currently regulating child labor. But accompanying this surge in teen workers has been a spike in child labor violations across the U.S. leaving labor experts concerned. Jacqueline Aguilar is a 21-year-old college student who, from the time she was 13 worked 12 hours shifts in the lettuce and potato fields with her parents to make ends meet.

Aguilar didn’t know her rights when she was a child saying:

“Laws have to be stricter because a lot of people don’t report [violations], once I started getting older and my mom became disabled because of the job, it changed my perspective on children working.”

Currently, federal law prohibits minors from working in jobs labeled “hazardous” like manufacturing, roofing, meatpacking, and demolition. But there is a push from some Republican lawmakers to not just roll back restrictions on hours worked and length of shifts, but also to allow children to fill roles in these “hazardous” jobs such as industrial laundries, light manufacturing, demolition, roofing, and excavation.

Which states and sectors are leading the downward charge?

While most states have tougher laws than the federal rules, some Republican lawmakers seek to undo those restrictions in their state. These lawmakers are backed in their efforts by restaurant, liquor, and home builders’ associations, who stand to benefit from an expanded low-wage worker pool if the changes pass. Protection stripping legislation for six states was drafted or lobbied for by Florida-based lobbying group, the Foundation for Government Accountability, which fights to promote conservative interests like restricting access to anti-poverty programs. There are some states, like Colorado and Virginia, fighting the trend and enacting legislation to dial up penalties for violations. Rep. Sheila Lieder (D) introduced a bill in Colorado to raise the fines for violators saying that at $20 per offense, the current penalties were not high enough to effectively dissuade employers from violating child labor laws.

Rep. Lieder stated:

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

Virginia, the location of poultry plants recently found to be illegally employing migrant children, also just passed legislation to raise penalties. Sadly, these states are the exception in the sea of suggested changes to child labor protections currently being considered.

Below is a breakdown of states that recently or are now considering stripping away child labor protections:

Alabama– Considering a bill that essentially eliminates work permit requirements for minors, required by most states, which prove age or parental or school permission to work.

Arkansas– A bill passed into law last year by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) essentially eliminates work permit requirements for minors, which prove age or parental or school permission to work. Most states require these permits.

Florida– A new law was just signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to work seven days in a row. It also removes all restrictions on work hours for teens in online school or home school, meaning these teens are effectively allowed to work overnight shifts. Florida also just passed a law drafted by Florida’s construction industry association allowing teens to work certain jobs in residential construction. This is currently awaiting approval from the governor.

Georgia– A bill allowing 14-year-olds to work in landscaping on factory grounds and other prohibited work sites is currently being evaluated. Georgia is also considering a bill like Arkansas’ that essentially eliminates work permit requirements for minors, required by most states, which prove age or parental or school permission to work.

IndianaA new law was just passed removing 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. The law also expands the legal work hours for 14 and 15-year-olds in the state.

Iowa– A new law was signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) last year allowing minors to work in jobs previously deemed too hazardous, which includes work in industrial laundries, light manufacturing, demolition, roofing, and excavation.

KentuckyA new bill just passed in the House that prevents the state from having child labor laws that are stricter than federal protections. In effect, this removes any limitations on when 16 and 17-year-olds can work. It also removed any requirements for meal and rest breaks for ALL minors.

MissouriConsidering a bill that essentially eliminates work permit requirements for minors, required by most states, which prove age or parental or school permission to work.

West Virginia– Enacted a new law this March that allows 16 and 17-year-olds to work some types of roofing jobs as part of an apprenticeship program. West Virginia is also considering a bill like Arkansas’ that essentially eliminates work permit requirements for minors, required by most states, which prove age or parental or school permission to work.

While this list isn’t comprehensive and doesn’t include all 16 states that are considering or have already rolled back protections, it underlines the nature and scope of the rollbacks being considered across the U.S.

“Good, but alone, not good enough”

Freedom United has joined the Child Labor Coalition who have been fighting this fight since 1989. The push back of child labor laws is nothing new, but we remain strong in our beleif that the huge increase in child labor violations and the recent deaths of minors should have prompted a push to strengthen state laws, not roll back protections. Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado are among the states pushing to raise outdated employer penalties for child labor violations that are “not substantial enough to deter employers from breaking the law.” But more needs to be done.

If you haven’t already, especially if you live in one of the states discussed, sign our petition to say NO to child labor law rollbacks. Express your concern about the bill(s) threatening to strip away child labor protections and take us back to the dark days before these laws were in place. We’ve seen what slack protection standards for children in the workforce look like and we know how doing dangerous types of work and working long hours can negatively impact a child’s development, no matter what country they’re from. The new bills encourage exploitation and open the door to a heightened risk of modern slavery, which no one, no matter their age, should ever be subjected to.

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PAMELA CLARE-JOYCE
1 month ago

I live in the UK and these revelations about the US came as a massive shock though no surprise. We probably have violations in the UK too and in UK owned firms abroad. Shame on all of them

Rusty
1 month ago

Louisiana is trying to take away the mandatory 30 minute break for minors who work 5 or more hours.

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