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The Republican push to weaken child labor laws, explained

It’s not just about a labor shortage.

A kid working in a local ready-made garment factory. Ziaul Haque Oisharjh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Rachel M. Cohen is a senior reporter for Vox covering social policy. She focuses on housing, schools, labor, criminal justice, and abortion rights, and has been reporting on these issues for more than a decade.

Earlier this week Republican state lawmakers in Wisconsin circulated a new bill that would allow workers as young as 14 years old to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants, down from the state’s current age minimum of 18 years old. The legislative proposal “creates a simple solution” to workforce staffing issues, said the Republican bill sponsors in a memo they circulated to colleagues on Monday.

Wisconsin is not the only state looking to loosen labor laws affecting minors, and over the last few months there have been been Republican-led bills in states like Arkansas, Ohio, and Iowa aimed at making it easier for teenagers to work in more jobs and for more hours in the day. Some labor experts say the proposed changes pose little threat to workplace safety, but they’ve overlapped with shocking exposés in the New York Times and Washington Post that uncovered exploited migrant children working illegally in American jobs. On Tuesday, the US Labor Department announced it had found two 10-year-olds working at a McDonald’s in Louisville, Kentucky, sometimes until 2 am.

As the Wisconsin lawmakers suggested, these new bills are partly a reaction to the competitive labor market and struggles businesses have been facing to fill open positions. But they’re also rooted in longstanding conservative opposition to workplace regulation, and some labor advocates worry they’re just the opening salvo to a broader attack on government safety rules.

What are the new state laws being proposed?

Over the last two years, at least 10 states have introduced or enacted laws to change the rules governing teenage work requirements.

In 2022, New Hampshire and New Jersey passed laws extending the hours teenagers could work. New Hampshire lawmakers also relaxed rules for busing tables where alcohol is served, allowing 14-year-olds now to do it, down from the previous minimum of 15 years old. New Jersey lawmakers bumped up the number of hours teens can work during the summer (to 40 hours a week for 14- and 15-year-olds and 50 for 16- and 17-year-olds.)

This year lawmakers have advanced more bills in states like Georgia, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Iowa.

Some rule changes — like allowing teens to work later in the summer — sound fairly innocuous, but others have caused more concern, like a proposal in Minnesota to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work on construction sites, and one in Iowa that would allow 14-year-olds to work in meat coolers. Others worry about a general slippery slope of loosening child labor laws, and sending a message to employers that enforcement will be even more relaxed than it already is.

For example, even though a federal labor investigation recently found 10 children working illegally in Arkansas for a company that cleans hazardous meatpacking equipment, in March, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the “Youth Hiring Act” — a law eliminating Arkansas’ requirement that 14- and 15-year-olds get work permits. The work permits, which Republicans called an “arbitrary” burden, had required proof of age, parent permission, and an employer’s signature.

While work permits are not mandated under federal law, critics of the Youth Hiring Act said they provided an important paper trail of youth employment, and reminded Arkansas businesses of their legal obligations.

In Iowa, lawmakers are advancing a controversial bill that allows young teens to work in some currently prohibited fields, if it’s deemed part of a school or employer training program. Supporters of the bill say more hazardous jobs like heavy manufacturing and construction would still be barred from teen employment, but new exceptions for minors would include fields like demolition and manufacturing. The bill would also permit 16- and 17-year-olds to serve alcohol in restaurants, if their parents granted permission. Democratic lawmakers have voiced concern about the risks this poses to youth workers, especially since the bill would also extend the hours a teen could work into the night.

Michael McGrorty, a veteran wage-hour investigator, thinks the proposed state changes “are not really very important.” McGrorty predicted schools will likely still require parental permission for work-study credit even if states no longer mandate it, and said even if minors are approved to work in hazardous occupations, most firms still won’t allow it because their insurance won’t provide liability coverage. “This is the reason that construction apprenticeships don’t permit entry of minors, though the federal government allows this,” he told Vox.

The federal government provides a floor of protection against child labor, and that hasn’t changed — yet

The federal government regulates youth employment primarily under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a law Congress passed in 1938. The FLSA bars “oppressive child labor” and sets a floor on standards, wages, and hours for teen jobs. Those standards include:

  • Minors of any age can work in virtually any business that’s entirely owned by their parents, except for youth under age 16, who can’t work in mining or manufacturing.
  • No minor can work in an occupation deemed hazardous, like roofing or forest fire fighting.
  • Children under 14 can work in FLSA exempt-jobs like delivering newspapers, acting, and babysitting.
  • On school days, 14- and 15-year-olds can work for up to three hours outside of school hours. On days when school is not in session, they can work up to eight hours.
  • During the summer months 14- and 15-year-olds can work until 9 pm, though during the traditional school year they can only work between 7 am and 7 pm.

The FLSA doesn’t regulate things like job breaks or benefits, but does allow for an employer to pay youth workers a minimum wage of $4.25 during their first 90 days on the job. The FLSA also has a much weaker set of protections for children working in agriculture.

Most minors are covered under FLSA, and states can pass their own protections on top, so long as they don’t conflict with the federal government’s. For example, it’s common for states to limit the hours 16-year-olds can work, and require all minors to get “work permits” to get jobs, but these are not federal rules.

Many of the legislative fights lately concern efforts to roll back some of those state protections, or to impose changes that apply to the narrow set of employers exempt from FLSA. However, there have also been some conservative rumbling about changing the federal rules, too. In Ohio, for example, Republican lawmakers approved a bill allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to work until 9 pm, rather than 7 pm, during the school year with parent permission, and passed a concurrent resolution urging Congress to amend the FLSA to bring it in line with Ohio’s change.

Enforcement of federal youth labor laws hasn’t been great

The Department of Labor is responsible for enforcing the FLSA, but the underfunded agency has been struggling greatly on that front. Earlier this year the agency announced the number of minors employed in jobs that violate child labor laws in fiscal year 2022 increased 37 percent over fiscal year 2021, and 283 percent over fiscal year 2015.

Congress has held the Labor Department’s budget flat for years, leading to a 12 percent loss in Wage and Hour division staff between 2010 and 2019. The department’s Office of the Solicitor has also lost more than 100 attorneys over the last decade, for these same budgetary reasons.

In February the Labor Department reported findings from 14 separate child labor investigations, including one that found Packers Sanitation Services, Inc. had been illegally employing over 100 teens between the ages of 13 and 17 in hazardous occupations. Federal investigators found the use of child labor “systemic” across eight states.

While the Department of Labor has over 600 additional child labor investigations open, critics note the penalties for violating FLSA are weak, thus the law itself may be a weak deterrent. The penalty for Packers Sanitation, for example, was a mere $1.5 million.

In the wake of the New York Times investigating companies illegally employing youth migrant workers in dangerous jobs, the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services launched a new joint task force to investigate the problem, and pledged to try and better vet sponsors of unaccompanied children.

Lawmakers are also scrambling to react with bills in Congress to increase civil penalties for child labor law violations, though for now nothing has moved forward.

Conservatives and business groups have long objected to youth employment restrictions and they’re behind the new bills today, too

Some conservatives have long seen child labor laws as government overreach, dictating rules for minors that should be left up to individual families. Others simply oppose most forms of government regulation. And still others see youth labor restrictions as an unnecessary barrier at a time when companies are struggling to hire workers.

Conservative billionaire Charles Koch and his late brother David Koch have long used their fortunes to support rolling back child labor restrictions. In 1980, David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket and pledged to “abolish” child labor laws, income taxes, and Medicare. In 1982, Ronald Reagan’s administration proposed the first major change to federal child labor laws in 40 years, to expand the hours and types of jobs 14- and 15-year-olds could work, and make it easier for employers to pay students less than minimum wage.

Tesnim Zekeria from Popular Information highlighted some of the more recent Koch-funded efforts to weaken support for child labor laws, including an essay, “A Case Against Child Labor Prohibitions” published in 2014 from the Koch-funded Cato Institute that argued depriving work opportunities to poor children in developing countries “only limits their options further and throws them into worse alternatives.”

In 2016, a Koch-funded conservative nonprofit, the Foundation for Economic Education, published “Let the Kids Work” where the author argued children taking jobs would help them develop a work ethic, a professional network, and skills and discipline to build character. In 2019, another academic tied to the Koch-funded Commonwealth Foundation argued in Forbes to eliminate the minimum wage for teenagers.

Last week the Washington Post reported on a Florida-based conservative think tank, the Foundation for Government Accountability, that has played a leading role in the recent spate of bills winding through state legislatures. In March, the Arkansas state representative who sponsored the state’s “Youth Hiring Act” said the bill “came to me from the Foundation [for] Government Accountability.” The Post also found the Florida think tank helped a Missouri lawmaker craft and edit their child labor bill.

Other conservative causes the Foundation for Government Accountability focuses on include blocking Medicaid expansion and adding new restrictions to welfare programs like food stamps. On their website they proclaim they help “free individuals from the trap of government dependence and to let them experience the power of work.”

Yet another conservative group pushing new bills to weaken child labor rules is the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), the primary lobbying arm for small businesses. The American Prospect and Workday magazines reported on its advocacy role and its reliance on the tight labor market as justification. “Our members’ inability to fill workplace vacancies has catapulted to the top concern currently facing the success of their businesses,” said NFIB in 2021 testimony it submitted in support of Ohio’s proposed bill.

The Foundation for Government Accountability also points to the worker shortage as justification. In a white paper the group published in 2022, they emphasized that teenagers “are a critical source of labor for businesses struggling to find help” and underscored that parents should get to decide whether their kids worked or not, linking their advocacy to a broader political push on the right for “parents’ rights.”

According to an analysis by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, between 2001 and 2021, the share of 16- to 19-year-olds not working increased by 22.4 percent, which the think tank said is “almost entirely explained” by the higher share of young people prioritizing education during those years.

The risks of loosening youth employment rules

Immigration advocates say the loosening of child labor rules poses the greatest threat to migrant children, who are already more vulnerable to exploitation. The number of unaccompanied children entering the United States rose to 128,904 in 2022, per federal data.

Ending work permits, some advocates warn, will make it even harder to track the landscape of child labor in the United States. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey only asks about employment status for those 16 and older. Some children are paid in cash, and the available data on youth employment — especially in agriculture — is notoriously incomplete.

“We don’t have very good estimates of the number of independent child migrants that are working in the United States,” Eric Edmonds, an economist at Dartmouth who studies youth trafficking and child labor, told The Dispatch in March. “My guess is that the number of independent child migrants that are working are a fraction of a percent of the number of children working in the United States.”

Labor experts warn that the weakening of child labor laws also threatens other workplace regulations, as well as the wages of all workers. Many of the same conservative organizations pushing these rules have also taken aim at union rights and environmental safety standards.

For now, many of these efforts have picked up steam by skating under the radar, and seizing on the fact that many parents hold favorable opinions generally of teen work. A recent national poll led by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health found only 29 percent of parents considered themselves very informed about their state’s laws for teen employment, but over 60 percent said teen jobs helped promote time management skills, and over 75 percent said they help teach money management.

In March the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll surveyed state residents on the bill pending in the Iowa legislature to relax child labor laws, and found 50 percent favored the bill, 42 percent opposed it, and 8 percent were unsure. Republicans and men were likely to support the bill, while Democrats and a plurality of women opposed it. Among parents of those with children under 18, the pollsters found 57 percent backed it.

Update, May 5, 1:20 pm ET: This story, originally published on May 3, has been updated twice to include information about the Labor Department’s investigation into children working at McDonald’s and comments from wage-and-hour investigator Michael McGrorty.