Americans like progress, they like to see things moving forward, not backward. So it’s been quite disheartening to see lawmakers in several states pushing to move things backward when it comes to regulating child labor.
On March 7, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed legislation that weakens an important protection against 14- and 15-year-olds doing exploitative work—under the new law, 14- and 15-year-olds will no longer need to obtain working papers before getting a job. Also two weeks ago, Ohio’s Republican-controlled State Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve legislation that would let 14- and 15-year-olds work until 9:00 p.m. on school days, two hours past the current 7:00 p.m. limit.
Meanwhile in Iowa, lawmakers pushed a bill that not only would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work some jobs in meatpacking plants, but would shield employers from any civil liability if young workers were injured or died on the job. In Minnesota, Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill to let 16- and 17-year-olds do construction work—a job that’s long been considered too dangerous for workers under 18. So far this year, eight bills to weaken child labor protections have already been introduced in six Midwestern states. (Rolling back child labor restrictions has long been a pet project of the Koch Brothers and their network of billionaire donors.)
The timing for these measures couldn’t be less appropriate. They come after an eye-opening New York Times investigation by Hannah Dreier who found that companies in at least twenty states were hiring child laborers, some as young as age 12, many illegally working the late shift, often to produce goods or parts for such well-known companies as Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, Fruit of the Loom, and General Motors. Dreier found that most of these workers were unaccompanied immigrant teens from Central America. Moreover, the current efforts to ease child labor regulations come after the U.S. Department of Labor imposed a $1.5 million fine in February on Packers Sanitation Services, a cleaning contractor, after it had illegally hired at least 102 workers aged 13 to 17 to work at thirteen slaughterhouses in eight states. Packers often had these teenagers work overnight shifts, with some of them suffering chemical burns because they worked with dangerous cleaning agents. Also in February, the U.S. Department of Labor said there had been a 69 percent increase since 2018 in the number of children employed illegally by U.S. companies. It found 835 companies employing 3,800 children in violation of labor laws.
Supporters of the new Arkansas law say it eliminates a tedious, time-consuming requirement, speeds up the hiring process and—at a time when there’s so much talk about parental rights—increasingly lets parents, rather than government, make decisions about when, where, and how much kids can work. But opponents of the bill, including the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, argue that the current work permit process is quick and ensures that parents are involved. Parents or guardians must sign a teen’s work permit application. The nonprofit group Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families warns that the new law—by not requiring work certificates—will make it easier for kids to take potentially exhausting or exploitative jobs without their parents’ knowing the details and will make it easier for employers to ignore age requirements and take advantage of young workers.
In an interview, Reid Maki, director of child labor advocacy for the National Consumers League, said the new Arkansas law was unfortunate because the work permit process lets state agencies know what work children will be doing, and “if it is egregiously dangerous, they can deny the request or point it out to the kid and the kid’s parents.”
“All this is an erosion of protections,” Maki added. “It doesn’t make sense to do this when we realize we have a crisis of children working when they shouldn’t be. It’s pretty appalling.”
The nationwide labor shortage—with the jobless rate falling to its lowest level in fifty years—is a big reason that Governor Sanders and other lawmakers have pushed to roll back restrictions in order to make it easier for young people to work. The bills’ sponsors have often slammed critics by saying it’s good for children to work, but no one is saying that teens shouldn’t work. Jobs teach responsibility, punctuality, and many valuable skills. At the same time, no occupational safety expert would say it’s a good idea for 14- and 15-year-olds to work in meatpacking plants or 16- or 17-year-olds to work on construction sites.
No occupational safety expert would say it’s a good idea for 14- and 15-year-olds to work in meatpacking plants or 16- or 17-year-olds to work on construction sites.
In backing the proposal to ease Iowa’s child labor restrictions, Brad Epperly, a lobbyist for the Iowa Grocery Industry Association, told a state senate subcommittee, “Everybody has a worker need right now. I think the latest statistics are young people from 16–24, the job participation rate is like 56 percent. It’s awful low.”
Last month, around seventy-five union members held a protest inside Iowa’s state capitol rotunda to oppose the push to roll back child labor regulations. They yelled, “Our kids are not for sale!” Jesse Case, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 238, said, “We need to pay higher wages for their parents, so the kids don’t have to work in factories and packing plants.” The Iowa bill would let government officials grant waivers for children in training programs so that they could work in factories and packing plants, from which teens under 18 are normally barred.
According to the Des Moines Register, Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, said, “We’re not selling out our kids to multinational corporations for profit. We are not selling out our kids to multinational corporations for cheap labor.”
Some of these state proposals contradict federal regulations that prohibit teens under 18 from working in construction or meatpacking. Under the Constitution’s supremacy clause, federal laws and regulations trump state laws, although some Republican lawmakers apparently hope that the Supreme Court’s conservative majority will overturn some of the U.S. Department of Labor’s restrictions on child labor.
Evidently some businesses are so eager to fill vacancies that they don’t seem to mind or realize that too many hours of work, especially during the school year, can hurt some children in the long run. At the same time, some parents are of course eager for their children to take jobs and gain valuable work experience, while some families struggling to make ends meet are desperate for their kids to bring in some extra income. But businesses, parents, and teenagers should realize that there can be a cost to child labor.
Numerous studies have shown that high school students who work twenty or more hours a week are more likely to drop out of school and that their grades often suffer, not to mention that they’re often exhausted, sometimes falling asleep in class. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, high school graduates (without college) had median weekly earnings of $809 in 2021, which is 29 percent more than for high school dropouts. Workers with a bachelor’s degree earn $1,334 a week, more than double what high-school dropouts earn and 65 percent more than high-school graduates. (To be sure, some high school students hate sitting in class for seven hours a day and would much prefer a job—and we should do our best to ensure that these teens don’t end up in dead-end $10-an-hour jobs but instead, say, enroll in apprenticeships that train them for $35-an-hour jobs.)
The good news is that there are some positive developments on the child labor front. It’s great that the news media is paying more attention to this problem, which reaches from the nineteenth century now into the twenty-first century. In December, for example, Reuters ran an important investigative article about young teenagers working throughout the Hyundai-Kia supply chain in Alabama. And this increased visibility is being met with legislative action. Convinced that the maximum fine—just $15,000—per child labor occurrence is a mere nuisance and not at all a deterrent for corporations, Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii has proposed increasing the maximum fine nearly nine-fold, to a $132,270 maximum for routine violations. Schatz has also proposed a $601,150 maximum for each violation that causes the death or serious injury of a minor. Last week, sixty-two House Democrats called on the Biden administration to step up enforcement of child labor laws, asking the Department of Labor to use a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act to block the shipment of goods from factories that employ illegal child labor.
Also, thanks to news media coverage, there was such widespread condemnation from across the United States to parts of the Iowa child labor bill that Republicans in the Iowa House eventually deleted the parts that would let children work in meatpacking plants and would free employers from liability if young workers were hurt or killed on the job.
The Iowa bill would still let 16- and 17-year-olds serve alcoholic beverages in bars, however—an idea that critics say could lead to sexual harassment and even sexual attacks by tipsy or drunk customers. Critics also warn this provision might encourage more underage drinking. Dennis Peterson, general manager of Crankshaft Bar and Grill in Moville, Iowa, said, “Allowing a minor who cannot consume the alcohol to serve the alcohol, what type of temptation does that create with those minors and if their friends are in here are they more apt under temptation to serve their friends?”
The Iowa bill would still let 16- and 17-year-olds serve alcoholic beverages in bars, however—an idea that critics say could lead to sexual harassment and even sexual attacks by tipsy or drunk customers.
Governor Sanders’s office says that notwithstanding the newly signed law, the laws of Arkansas remain plenty strong to provide adequate protection to young workers. But some advocates, perhaps remembering Lewis Hines’ disconcerting, early-twentieth-century photos of child labor, worry that these new legislative efforts show that the nation is moving backward on child labor—and will encourage more employers to violate child labor laws. Connie Ryan, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, told lawmakers, “Do you remember the images of children in manufacturing and other dangerous work from the early 1900s? There is a reason our society said that it is inappropriate to work in those conditions.”
There is nothing wrong with children doing paid work for five, ten, fifteen hours a week, so long as the jobs are safe and children don’t return home too late. But when some people are calling for teens to be able to work six hours a day on school days or work until 11:00 at night, we should all remember that for children to be happy and succeed, it’s important they have adequate time for their studies, have enough time for sports and other extracurricular activities, and have plenty time with their friends and their families.
It’s true that we face a labor shortage, but we as a nation should be careful about filling that hole with 14- and 15-year-olds. (Some of the people who are most eager to let younger children work longer hours are the same people most opposed to allowing in more immigrants or asylees, who could fill some of those job vacancies.) Hiring more 14- through 17-year-olds and having them work longer hours might help some employers in the short term, but it will shift these teens’ focus away from school, causing some to do worse in their studies and making it more likely that some will drop out. Such a decline in educational attainment could very well turn out to be bad over the long run for them, and the overall economy, for decades to come.