Will you have a summer job? Across the United States, many young people can be employed casually as pet sitters, baby sitters, lawn care providers, or in their own family-owned businesses. But when a minor goes to work at a corporate entity—a store, restaurant, factory—strict legislation comes into play.
Some of those rules may change. America faces continued worker shortages and inflation. So lawmakers in several states want to loosen child labor restrictions. They are considering letting children work in some occupations currently deemed hazardous. They’re vying for longer hours on school nights with parental approval and even letting workers as young as 14 serve alcoholic beverages in restaurants and bars.
How will this help? The efforts to roll back child labor rules are largely led by Republican lawmakers who want to open doors for more people to work—even if they are young. Teens are often eager to land their first jobs. They will work hard for less hourly pay than many adults will, because their needs are less. They’re also generally willing to do entry-level or menial tasks. Businesses that operate on thin profit margins sometimes can’t pay adults enough to attract them to the vacant jobs. But younger people might leap at the chance to have work—any work.
These lawmakers suggest that filling open spots with low-paid workers will ease inflation by lowering costs for businesses. Then the businesses can hold or even lower prices on their goods and services.
But child welfare advocates are concerned. They say the proposal turns back the clock on child protection. Many nations of the world don’t have laws to protect child workers. Children work long hours, missing out on education and endangering their health and safety. Will the U.S. changes lead to similar scenarios?
“The consequences are potentially disastrous,” says Reid Maki, director of the Child Labor Coalition. That group advocates against exploitative labor policies. “You can’t balance a perceived labor shortage on the backs of teen workers.”
Legislators in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa are actively considering relaxing child labor laws to address worker shortages.
Wisconsin lawmakers back a proposal to allow 14-year-olds to serve alcohol. If passed, Wisconsin would have the lowest such limit nationwide, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The Ohio Legislature wants to allow students ages 14 and 15 to work until nine o’clock p.m. during the school year with parents’ permission. That’s later than the seven o’clock p.m. federal limit. After all, kids need time with family, recreation, and rest!
Republican Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed a law last year allowing teens aged 16 and 17 to work unsupervised in child care centers. She has until June 3 to sign or veto another bill to allow teens of that age to serve alcohol in restaurants and expand the hours minors can work.
Republicans did drop provisions from a version of that bill allowing children aged 14 and 15 to work in some dangerous industries. Those include mining, logging, and meatpacking.
Republican Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law in March eliminating permits that required employers to verify a child’s age and the parent’s consent. Without work permit requirements, companies can more easily claim ignorance if caught working a child too late.
Maki still fears some employers will exploit the willingness of young teens. He may not be wrong. The human heart, outside of guidance by the Holy Spirit, will often seek to serve itself over the good of others.
The Department of Labor says illegal child labor is on the rise. It fined one of the nation’s largest meatpacking sanitation contractors $1.5 million in February. Investigators found the company illegally employed more than 100 children at locations in eight states. The young workers cleaned bone saws and other dangerous equipment, often using hazardous chemicals.
Supporters of the changes say the current law is too strict. They say that giving teenagers work experience is a good thing.
“There’s no reason why anyone should have to get the government’s permission to get a job,” says Arkansas Representative Rebecca Burkes.
What do you think? At what age should a child be allowed to work in a business outside his or her home and close community? What limits do you think should be in place and why?
(Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks in Little Rock, Arkansas. She signed a law in March eliminating work permit requirements for children under age 16. Al Drago/Pool Photo via AP)