1. A tight labor market has caused business leaders to seek child labor to fill the gaps.
2. States are following a trend to roll back regulations on child labor.
3. Safety risks and poverty risks endanger children.
In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act to stop companies from using child labor to do dangerous work which exploded during the Great Depression. Experts say a tight labor market has left employers scrambling to fill positions after the pandemic, leading business leaders to look for alternatives.
Congress recently introduced a federal bill to allow teens to work in one of the most dangerous jobs, the logging industry. The Future Logging Career Act was reintroduced on March 7, 2023. This is a high-profile example of a trend to roll back regulations on child labor. Ten states have successfully rolled back regulations on child labor laws and more states have introduced similar bills. The goal aims to reform child labor laws at the state level, gaining momentum and using results to build pressure for federal regulatory change.
Many state bills introduced have been drafted by The Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida-based think tank that advocates for parental freedoms. Often titled, the youth hiring or employment bills , they represent growing momentum among advocates who declare parents and not government policy should determine whether, where, and when minors can work. Advocates assert state and federal regulators are holding back the size and quality of the U.S. workforce.
Risk for Minors
The logging bill is just one of several efforts across the United States (US) to roll back child labor protections at a time when many employers are still struggling to fill jobs. The logging industry is one of the most dangerous fields to work in the US. Concerns about child labor in the US are mounting as risks for minors are at an all-time high as several high-profile cases, including the discovery of children as young as 13 working in meatpacking and other dangerous jobs.
Many rules set by the Fair Labor Standards Act which restrict the hours and types of work that can be performed by minors, are not strictly enforced. The number of children employed in violation of child labor laws has increased by 37% in the last year and by 283% since 2015.
Aside from safety concerns, child labor potentially leads minors to a lifecycle of poverty. Minors who get close to or exceed that 20-hour-a-week mark for paid labor during the school year end up being at higher-risk to be less likely to graduate and pursue higher education to join the workforce. This in turn leads minors toward a path to fewer job opportunities and lower earnings for a lifetime.
The Biden Administration announced a crackdown on child labor in February 2023. The Biden Administration unveiled a plan to get tougher on illegal child labor, as high-profile cases increase across the country. As part of the effort, the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services will coordinate investigations and ensure the safety of migrant children who are more vulnerable to labor trafficking.
Those in support of regulatory rollbacks have advocated for efforts to expand work hours for minors, expand the industries minors are permitted to work in, reduce enforcement and legislate sub-minimum wages for minors. Some states have successfully passed legislation to further that aim.
- Arkansas has eliminated age verification and guardian permission requirements.
- Iowa has eliminated a minimum childcare worker age.
- Iowa, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Missouri have extended permitted working hours for minors.
- Maine and Virginia have installed a sub-minimum wage for minors.
Legislation to relax child labor laws has also been introduced in Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, and Georgia. Supporters of child worker proposals say they reduce arbitrary red tape around the hiring process.
Those who oppose regulatory rollbacks argue the US does not need to redefine childhood. “It’s pushing Iowa kids decades into the past and it’s really concerning, because I think it’s going to take advantage of some of the most economically vulnerable kids in Iowa and around the nation,” said the Democratic state senator Liz Bennett.
The Department of Labor and Department of Health and Human Services have proposed policies to strengthen the enforcement of child labor violations and increase monetary penalties for violations. But opponents argue that enforcement is already inadequate and enforcement agencies haven’t been adequately staffed or funded to respond to the rise in child labor violations.
Most regulatory rollbacks involve eliminating required proof of age, parental permission and an employer’s signature. These items are important because they leave a paper trail of where children are employed and remind businesses of the rules. “This wasn’t burdening parents or children who want to work. This wasn’t burdening business that followed the law. It would only be a burden to an employer who didn’t want to follow the rules about work hours and the types of work that kids that age are able to do”, said Laura Kellams, from the nonprofit Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
Child labor regulatory rollbacks are counterintuitive to the overall benefit of the economy and labor market. Child labor would not help the economy because it would cause wages to go down. The more workers willing to work for a given wage causes an increase in competition and drives down wages. Hence, the more child workers in the economy, the lower the wages of jobs that children engage in unskilled work. The working child’s primary economic contribution comes through the help the child offers their family.
Altogether, child labor laws exist to protect children and they must not be eliminated. Requirements for minors to work are not exhaustive and can easily be met. If the labor market is tight, children are not responsible for picking up the slack. Federalism allows states to choose policies that they believe are right for their population. However, do not expect the federal government to follow along. Congress must break this trend and reject the Future Logging Careers Act.
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