Wisconsin — As US federal authorities try to prosecute growing child labor violations, some state lawmakers want to allow minors to work longer hours and in higher-risk jobs.
The lawmakers, mostly Republicans, argue that relaxing child labor rules could alleviate a national labor shortage.
But child protection activists fear the measures mark a concerted effort to repeal disputed protections for children.RELATED
“The consequences could be disastrous,” said Reid Maki, director of the Child Labor Coalition, which campaigns against sweatshop policies. “You can’t make up for a perceived lack of labor at the expense of teen workers.”
In the past two years, lawmakers have proposed relaxing child employment rules in at least 10 states, according to a report released last month by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning group. Some proposals became laws, while others were withdrawn or vetoed.
Lawmakers in Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa are considering watering down laws to combat worker shortages. Employers have struggled to fill positions after a spike in retirements, deaths and illnesses from COVID-19, a decline in legal immigration and other factors.
Lawmakers in Wisconsin support a proposal that would allow 14-year-olds to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants. If approved, Wisconsin could have the lowest minimum in that category in the entire country, according to the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse.
The Ohio Congress is in the process of passing a law that would allow 14- and 15-year-old students to work until 9:00 pm during the school year with parental permission. It’s later than federal law allows, so a side measure calls on the US Congress to amend its rules.
Under the Fair Employment Standards Act, minors may only work until 7:00 pm during the school year. Congress passed that law in 1938 to prevent children from being exposed to dangerous conditions and abusive practices in mines, factories, farms, and street businesses.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican, signed into law a law in March that removes permit requirements for employers to verify a minor’s age and parental consent. Without that requirement, companies caught violating child labor laws can more easily plead ignorance. Other measures have been passed to relax child labor laws in New Jersey, New Hampshire and Iowa.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed legislation last year allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to work unsupervised in preschools. The state legislature passed a rule this month allowing teens of that age to serve alcohol in restaurants. It would also expand the hours minors can work. Reynolds, who said in April that she supports young people working more, has until June 3 to endorse or veto that measure.
Republicans removed provisions from an earlier version of the rule that allowed 14- and 15-year-olds to work in dangerous fields like mining, logging and meatpacking. But it kept some parts that according to the Employment Department violate federal laws, such as one that allows children 14 and older to work in cold rooms and another that extends working hours in industrial laundries and assembly lines.
Teenage workers are more likely to accept low wages and are less likely to unionize for better working conditions, said Maki of the Child Labor Coalition, a Washington-based activist network.
“There are employers who benefit from having somewhat docile teenage workers,” Maki said. Teenagers, she added, are easy targets for industries that rely on vulnerable populations like immigrants and former inmates to fill dangerous jobs.
The Labor Department reported in February that child labor violations had grown nearly 70% since 2018. The agency has increased its inspections and has asked Congress to allow fines for violators to rise.
In February, the department fined one of the largest meat facility cleaning contractors $1.5 million when the company was found to illegally employ more than 100 children in eight different states. Child laborers cleaned bone saws and other dangerous equipment in meat processing plants, often using dangerous chemicals.
National business lobbyists, chambers of commerce and well-funded conservative groups support state laws to increase teen participation in the workforce. This is the case of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political network, and the National Federation of Independent Business, which tends to align itself with the Republicans.
The conservative group Opportunity Solutions Project and its parent organization, the Florida think tank Foundation for Government Accountability, helped lawmakers in Arkansas and Missouri draft bills to remove child labor protections, according to The Washington Post. . Like-minded groups and legislators often say their efforts are aimed at increasing parental rights and giving teens more work experience.
“There is no reason why anyone needs government permission to have a job,” Arkansas Republican Rep. Rebeca Burkes, who introduced the law to eliminate work permits for minors, told the state House. “That’s just trying to cut through the required red tape and take away the parent’s choice about whether their child can work.”
Margaret Wurth, a children’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch, a member of the Child Labor Coalition, described regulations like the one passed in Arkansas as “attempts to undermine important and secure workplace protections and reduce the power of workers ”.
Current laws don’t protect many child workers, Wurth said.
She would like legislators to remove the exceptions to child labor in agriculture. Federal law allows children 12 and older to work on farms any amount of time outside of school hours, with parental permission. Farmworkers ages 16 and older may work at dangerous heights or operate heavy machinery, high-risk tasks reserved for adult employees in other industries.
In 2021, 24 children died from workplace injuries in the United States, according to the Bureau of Employment Statistics. About half of fatal workplace accidents occurred on farms, according to a Government Accountability Office report on child fatalities between 2003 and 2016.
“More children die working in agriculture than in any other sector,” Wurth said. “Surveillance isn’t going to help child farm workers much if standards aren’t improved.”