Lawmakers in several states, predominantly Republicans, are pushing for legislation that would relax labor laws for children, allowing them to work in more hazardous occupations, longer hours on school nights, and expanded roles such as serving alcohol in bars and restaurants as young as 14. These efforts, aimed at addressing worker shortages, have raised concerns among child welfare advocates who see them as a threat to hard-won protections for minors. Over the past two years, at least 10 states have proposed loosening child labor laws, with some bills becoming law while others were withdrawn or vetoed.
States like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa are actively considering changes to child labor laws to tackle workforce shortages caused by factors like retirements, COVID-19-related issues, and decreased legal immigration. For instance, Wisconsin lawmakers support a proposal to allow 14-year-olds to serve alcohol in establishments, potentially making it the lowest age limit nationwide. In Ohio, the legislature is set to pass a bill that would permit students aged 14 and 15 to work until 9 p.m. during the school year, seeking an amendment to federal laws in the process.
These efforts have already yielded results in some states. Arkansas, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Iowa have passed laws that relax child labor regulations. Notably, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed a law last year allowing unsupervised work by 16- and 17-year-olds in childcare centers, and this month the state legislature approved a bill to allow minors of the same age to serve alcohol in restaurants and expand their work hours.
However, there are concerns that some provisions in these bills may violate federal law and endanger the well-being of teen workers. Despite the reported increase in child labor violations since 2018, proponents of these changes argue that they provide opportunities for youth employment and expand parental rights. Critics emphasize the vulnerability of teen workers, who are more likely to accept low pay and less likely to unionize or advocate for better working conditions.
Child labor advocates and organizations are urging lawmakers to strengthen workplace protections and eliminate exceptions for child labor in agriculture, where a significant number of work-related fatalities occur. Federal laws currently permit children as young as 12 to work on farms outside of school hours and engage in hazardous tasks typically reserved for adults in other industries.
The debate around child labor laws involves influential stakeholders such as business lobbyists, chambers of commerce, conservative groups, and advocacy networks. The Department of Labor has increased enforcement efforts against child labor violations and seeks larger fines against violators.
While some argue that relaxing child labor laws can address workforce shortages, opponents view these measures as jeopardizing the safety and well-being of young workers. They advocate for improved standards and an end to exceptions in sectors like agriculture, where child labor-related deaths are alarmingly high.
[With information sourced from AP]