MADISON, Wisconsin (AP) — As the federal government cracks down on child labour violations, some state lawmakers are embracing legislation to let children work longer hours and in more hazardous occupations.
The legislators, mostly Republicans, argue that relaxing child labour laws could ease nationwide labour shortages.
But child welfare advocates worry the measures represent a coordinated push to scale back hard-won protections for minors.
“The consequences are potentially disastrous,” said Reid Maki, director of the Child Labour Coalition, which advocates against exploitative labour policies. “You can’t balance a perceived labour shortage on the backs of teen workers.”
Lawmakers proposed loosening child labour laws in at least 10 states over the past two years, according to a report published last month by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. Some bills became law, while others were withdrawn or vetoed.
Legislators in Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa are actively considering relaxing child labour laws to address worker shortages. Employers have struggled to fill open positions after a spike in retirements, deaths and illnesses from COVID-19, decreases in legal immigration and other factors.
Wisconsin lawmakers back a proposal to allow 14-year-olds to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants. If passed, Wisconsin would have the lowest such limit nationwide, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The Ohio Legislature is on track to pass a bill allowing students ages 14 and 15 to work until 9 pm during the school year with their parents’ permission. That’s later than federal law allows, so a companion measure asks the US Congress to amend its own laws.
Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, students that age can only work until 7 pm during the school year. Congress passed the law in 1938 to stop children from being exposed to dangerous conditions and abusive practices in mines, factories, farms and street trades.
Republican Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law in March eliminating permits that required employers to verify a child’s age and their parent’s consent. Without work permit requirements, companies caught violating child labour laws can more easily claim ignorance. Other measures to loosen child labour laws have been passed into law in New Jersey, New Hampshire and Iowa.
Iowa Republican Governor Kim Reynolds signed a law last year allowing teens aged 16 and 17 to work unsupervised in child care centers. The state Legislature approved a bill this month to allow teens of that age to serve alcohol in restaurants. It would also expand the hours minors can work. Reynolds, who said in April she supports more youth employment, has until June 3 to sign or veto the measure.
Republicans dropped provisions from a version of the bill allowing children aged 14 and 15 to work in dangerous fields including mining, logging and meatpacking. But it kept some provisions that the Labour Department say violate federal law, including allowing children as young as 14 to briefly work in freezers and meat coolers, and extending work hours in industrial laundries and assembly lines.
Teen workers are more likely to accept low pay and less likely to unionize or push for better working conditions, said Maki, of the Child Labor Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy network.