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The surprising increase in child labor law violations

In some states, conservative lawmakers are easing the rules designed to protect younger workers.

- May 1, 2024
(cc) tama-chan, 2006.

Maybe you’ve seen the viral picture from Arkansas of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signing a bill that would allow children under 16 to work without parental permission. Or you may have read about the rise in child labor law violations, and reports of deaths and injuries among workers under 18. 

In the spirit of May 1, International Workers’ Day, this post explores the recent uptick in labor law violations against a group of workers we do not pay much attention to: children. 

Child labor law is settled law. Right? 

Sort of. 

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 restricts the number of hours and the types of jobs that younger workers in the United States can hold. Congress passed the FLSA as a response to employers increasingly using young workers during the Great Depression, as they were less expensive and accommodated employers’ wants more readily. While states can always go above the FLSA in their requirements, this law serves as a floor. But states can also take a varied approach to how permissive or restrictive their laws are in protecting younger workers.

Common restrictions on child labor include the number of hours worked per week and the scheduling of those hours. For example, workers under 16 cannot work more than a 40-hour week. Young workers are not allowed to work more than three hours a day on school days, and can’t work after 10 p.m. on a school night. Employers aren’t allowed to schedule young workers to cover closing shifts, followed by opening shifts. And employers can pay young people a separate minimum wage of $4.25, but only for the first 90 days of employment. 

States are easing up on child labor restrictions

Iowa, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, and South Dakota all enacted legislation in the last three years to extend working hours for young workers. All the states listed, with the exception of New Jersey, have a unified Republican government. The Wisconsin legislature passed a similar bill but the Democratic governor vetoed it. Minnesota lawmakers introduced similar measures. In January, the Florida House of Representatives passed legislation to ease the restrictions on workers under age 18.

Several states are relaxing measures designed to verify the age of employees, like requiring proof of age or parental permission. These requirements tend to reduce the number of 14- or 15-year-olds in the workplace. The Arkansas bill, for instance, eliminates the age verification requirement. Missouri introduced a bill along these lines – and West Virginia and Georgia are considering similar bills this year.

Keeping children safe 

Federal and state laws and regulations have historically aimed to prohibit children from work that can be dangerous. Meat-packing involves working with sharp, fast-moving objects that can cause serious bodily harm. Even cleaning this machinery can cause injuries. Assembly lines often require work with heavy machinery and can cause permanent damage. 

Construction sites also have a high potential for workplace injury. As such, younger workers are generally limited to how involved they can be in these types of workplaces. But some states have now introduced bills to allow younger workers to take on hazardous jobs. 

Yet while many states are enacting legislation that will reduce protections for young workers, other states have tried to firm up what they see as existing holes in the FLSA. A recent law enacted in Colorado under a unified Democratic government, for example, increases civil penalties for employers violating labor law, increases anti-retaliation protections for workers and their parents, and releases information to the public about labor law violations. 

Why roll back labor protections?

Though not the only reasons why child labor law violations, and rollbacks of protections against child labor, are happening more regularly, here are two reasons we’ve seen an increase.

1. There is a supply of model legislation

A Washington Post investigation found the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) has drafted model legislation to roll back some workplace protections for younger workers. In particular, these laws tend to reduce the need for the employer to verify the worker’s age; ease the 40-hour week rules and restrictions against working on school nights; and allow younger workers into industries that are potentially dangerous. This draft legislation also removes some penalties to employers who violate existing law. The FGA’s lobbying arm, Opportunity Solutions Project, reportedly has played a key role in advancing these measures through state legislatures.

2. There’s rising demand for cheaper employees.

A tight labor market in the wake of the pandemic means the number of jobs is close to the number of potential employees willing to take on new employees. This means many employers are looking to expand the potential base of workers. The situation today is similar to the conditions that led to increasing employment of children in the 1930s. An economy where employers look to lower their labor costs while children are looking to supplement family needs may now be pushing young people into jobs where they are at risk of being underpaid and overworked.

It’s also possible that enforcement of labor law violations has increased. We know that complaints, and from that violations, have risen rapidly over the last four years. This may stem from an increased knowledge about what a child labor violation looks like. Or it may reflect a rise in more egregious violations over the period. 

Why does this matter? 

Children who need to work are often among the most vulnerable people in our society. They often take on jobs that leave them at risk of being exploited. The longer young workers stay in these positions, the less mobility they may have toward other jobs. And being able to work longer and more strenuous hours may trap already vulnerable children in jobs that cannot provide a stable income – and discourage them from focusing on their education. 

Additionally, young workers may be asked to perform tasks that are physically dangerous and lead to long-term harm. While many workers find it difficult to decline tasks at work, young workers in particular may struggle to weigh risks and know their rights as employees. This problem compounds if those young people are financially vulnerable, migrants, or might otherwise feel compelled to perform unsafe tasks at a fast pace. Many of the recent child labor violations, particularly in meat-processing, have involved young migrant workers.

Tracking violations isn’t always easy

Because of the patchwork approach to labor protections, it is difficult for state-level labor departments to track violations involving young workers. Enforcement of child labor violations, and indeed many labor violations, is hampered by insufficient staffing capacity to keep up with the numbers of potential violations. 

Even when existing laws are enforced, employers in violation face minimal penalties. In 2023, the Washington, D.C., attorney general’s office identified over 800 child labor violations laws in Chipotle restaurants in D.C. Yet Chipotle’s fine was just $322,000 – the equivalent of around $402 per violation. 

It’s important to note that the shift in child labor protections appears to be coming from the same conservative lobbying groups that have dominated state politics with an increased use of model bills. These bills often pass in legislatures with unified Republican control, and provide a relatively simple way to enact large conservative agendas – and satisfy demands from industry groups and corporations. 

Why change labor policy and worker protections, though? Labor policy is an issue where the public has limited knowledge and rules can be fairly technical. Most Americans tend to think of child labor law violations as a thing of the past, something we no longer need to worry about. But these organizations are shifting the law in places where they have a large and direct benefit to employers. And kids who need money to make ends meet are going to bear the brunt of the effects of looser guidelines.

Laura C. Bucci is a 2024-2025 Good Authority fellow.