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September 07, 2023

Child Labor Laws: Balancing Education, Work and Rights

Daquiri J. Steele

It has been nearly a century since the topic of domestic child labor has garnered as much attention as it has recently. The term "child abuse" alone can conjure up images of early twentieth century adolescents with soot smeared faces from working in mines or factories. However, the child labor debate seems to have been reignited in the past couple of years, and change is on the horizon for several states.

Child labor violations are on the rise. There are some extraordinary stories that have made national news, such as 10-year-olds working at a McDonalds in Kentucky and the work-related deaths of three teenagers, all age 16, in Mississippi, Missouri, and Wisconsin over a 5-week period in Summer 2023. The number of child labor violations has increased over 280 percent since fiscal year 2015. From fiscal years 2021 to 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) saw an increase in youth employment violations of approximately 37 percent. Migrant youth are particularly vulnerable to child labor exploitation. In the wake of this uptick in non-compliance, the Biden Administration has pledged to make child labor violations an enforcement priority. The Administration has formed interagency partnerships between the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice, Labor, and State to strengthen enforcement and additional legislative interventions related to penalties for violations.

While the federal government is working to bolster child labor laws, many states are working to loosen them. Many states have either passed bills that would loosen youth employment laws or have legislation pending to do so. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) is the federal law that primarily governs youth employment. However, many states have laws that contain stricter rules regarding employing youth. For example, federal child labor laws do not require minors to obtain work permits, but a majority of states do. However, some states are abandoning this requirement. For instance, Arkansas eliminated the requirement that youth provide a work permit from the state labor agency verifying their age and parental consent. Additionally, the FLSA’s coverage is not universal in scope, and even among those entities that are covered, the rules are bifurcated based on whether the job is in the agricultural sector. Hence, states may legislate looser restrictions in certain areas without running afoul of federal law. Below are a few important considerations on the issue of child labor.

Working Hours. One important restriction on youth employment is a limitation on the hours teenagers can work. Working hours for teenagers are different during the academic year than during the summer break. Federal law does not restrict the working hours of minors aged 16 or older, though it does impose restrictions on the hours 14- and 15-year-olds can work.

Job Duties. There are 17 categories of job duties that have been deemed so hazardous that minors are prohibited from performing them. Examples include duties like using power-driven hoisting equipment and meatpacking. There is also a prohibition on driving for 16-year-olds and numerous driving restrictions for 17-year-olds. One job responsibility that has been the subject of several state bills is the minimum age to work in an establishment where alcohol is sold.

Wages. Upon obtaining a certificate from DOL, federal law allows an employer to pay certain teenage employees a “youth opportunity wage” of $4.25 per hour for a 90-day period. However, there are some restrictions. For instance, it must be the first time that the employer hired the teenager. Additionally, employers are prohibited from terminating existing employees or reducing their working hours to create positions that can be filled by a worker being paid a youth opportunity wage. This effectively allows some employers to pay youth a subminimum wage. If the subminimum wage is higher in the applicable state, employees must be paid at least the amount of the higher wage.

One of the primary threads running through all child labor issues is vulnerability. Youth in general and migrant youth in particular are exceptionally vulnerable to exploitation. This vulnerability not only makes them targets for violations of child labor laws, but also for retaliatory conduct by employers for objecting to violations or reporting non-compliance of child labor or other workplace laws (e.g., sexual harassment, occupational safety, accommodations requirements, etc.). This tension between federal government attempts to strengthen youth employment laws and the efforts of some state governments to loosen restrictions will continue to play out in the near future. However, both proponents and opponents of more robust child labor laws seem to agree on one thing: It is time to revisit the child labor laws.

    Daquiri Steele

    Assistant Professor of Law, University of Alabama

    aiquiri J. Steele is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Alabama School of Law where she teaches and writes in the areas of labor and employment law, civil rights, education law, administrative law and torts.

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