In wake of child labor scandal, some lawmakers ease work restrictions for minors

Lawmakers across the country are seeking to curb regulations to child labor that would see minors working in construction and meatpacking plants — professions often considered hazardous — and an uptick in the amount of hours teenagers are able to work.

On Wednesday, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill that no longer requires employers to obtain permission from the state’s Division of Labor to employ minors under 16.

Previously, minors in Arkansas needed to provide proof of their age and get written consent from their parents or guardians to be employed.

The same day Sanders signed the bill, lawmakers in the Ohio Senate passed a bill that would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work until 9 p.m. during the school year with permission from a parent or guardian.

If enacted, minors could only work three hours on a school day and no more than 18 hours a week during the school year.

State law currently prohibits 14- and 15-year-olds from working after 7 p.m. during the school year and after 9 p.m. during the summer.

Other states are taking similar actions to ease child labor restrictions.

In Minnesota, lawmakers have introduced a bill that would give companies permission to hire 16 - and 17-year-olds to work on building projects. The construction industry is currently struggling to attract employees.

According to Associated Builders and Contractors, a national industry trade association, the industry averaged 390,000 job openings per month in 2022, which the organization said was the highest level on record.

The organization blames the shortage on projected retirements and workers switching to other industries, on top of other reasons. Construction positions frequently rank among the most dangerous jobs in the country, according to Bureau of Labor statistics.

In Iowa, Republicans have backed a measure that would revise child labor laws so that 14- and 15-year-olds could work jobs in meatpacking plants, including inside industrial freezers and meat coolers as long as their work area is separate from where meat is prepared.

Federal law restricts minors from working jobs deemed to be dangerous. Those include working on roofing, coal mining, trenching and operating or cleaning meat slicers. Allowing teens to work broader meatpacking jobs opens them up to greater risks, including exposure to dangerous equipment and hazardous chemicals.

In another provision, 16- and 17-year-olds would be able to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants if the legislation proves successful.

Similar bills have seen mixed results. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill last year allowing minors to work longer hours in the summer.

16- and 17-year-olds can work up to 50 hours when school is not in session and 14- and 15-year-olds can work up to 40 hours. The bill was signed at the height of a labor shortage in the state.

Still, it was widely criticized by advocates who said that the law didn’t require employers to educate minors on labor rights and that it didn’t offer youths enough protections.

According to the Department of Labor, millions of teens work across a variety of sectors, including in agriculture, construction, retail, and food services as of last year. A 2018 Washington Post article found that, among more dangerous industries, hundreds of child workers have been killed on the job.

Poverty can be a significant driving factor in pushing kids into the workforce. Activists claim that when children leave school to work, they often end up remaining in a cycle that keeps them impoverished. Children who do attempt to balance school and work tend to see their academic performance decrease because of their increased obligations.

Another attempt to revise child labor laws so students could work longer hours during the summer failed in Wisconsin last year. The legislation set out to allow employees under 16 to work until 11 p.m. during summer months and when they don’t have school the day after a shift.

Wisconsin’s Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the legislation because it would create two systems of work requirements for employers, increasing administration work.

In addition, he said the bill did not tackle the goals of meeting workforce challenges, supporting working families and getting more people back into the workforce.

“At a time when our state has the lowest unemployment rate in Wisconsin state history…” Evers said in his veto message. “We must find meaningful, sustainable and long-term solutions to the workforce challenges that have plagued our state.”

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