As local economies grapple with a tightening labor market, some state legislatures are looking to relax child labor protections to help employers meet hiring needs.
“Because of the high demand for workers, where there are holes in the system, unfortunately child laborers can get caught up in staffing some of those holes,” said David Weil, a professor of social policy and management at Brandeis University, and a former wage and hour administrator in the Labor Department.
Legislators in Iowa and Minnesota introduced bills in January to loosen child labor law regulations around age and workplace safety protections in some of the country’s most dangerous workplaces. Minnesota’s bill would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to work construction jobs. The Iowa measure would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work certain jobs in meatpacking plants.
The Iowa bill, introduced by state Sen. Jason Schultz (R), would permit children as young as 14 to work in industrial freezers and meat coolers, provided they are separate from where meat is prepared, and work in industrial laundry.
At 15, they would be able to work as lifeguards and swimming instructors, perform light assembly-line work after obtaining a waiver from state officials, and load and unload up to 50 pounds of products from vehicles and store shelves with a waiver “depending on the strength and ability of the fifteen-year-old.”
The Iowa proposal would also expand hours teenagers can work during the school year, and would shield businesses from civil liability if a youth worker is sickened, injured or killed on the job.
Schultz did not respond to requests for comment. Critics say the proposal is dangerous and would subject child workers to hazardous environments.
“Do you remember the images of children in manufacturing and other dangerous work situations from the early 1900s?” Connie Ryan, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, said in testimony to state lawmakers, according to Radio Iowa. “There is a reason our society said that it is not appropriate for children to work in those conditions.”
Proponents of the Iowa bill argue that lowering the age limit fills a need. During the same hearing at which Ryan spoke, grocery industry lobbyist Brad Epperly argued an “awful low” number of younger people are working. He cited federal statistics that show the job participation rate for people ages 16 to 24 was about 56 percent in 2021.
New Jersey enacted a law last year expanding the hours teens are allowed to work when school is not in session. Wisconsin’s state legislature lifted restrictions on work hours during the school year, but Gov. Tony Evers (D) vetoed the legislation. The Ohio state Senate passed a similar bill unanimously, but the measure died in the legislature’s lower chamber.
Federal regulators have scrutinized reports of child labor violations in recent months.
In August, the Labor Department sued a Hyundai supplier in Alabama after Reuters reported the facility had used workers as young as 12.
A Nebraska labor contractor for meat producer JBS settled with the Labor Department in December to resolve civil charges after regulators alleged the company used “oppressive child labor.” Law enforcement launched an investigation into the plant after an underage worker allegedly sustained chemical burns from cleaning agents used at the facility.
To protect underage workers from dangerous environments and prioritize schooling, federal law limits the types of jobs children can perform, and how many hours they can work each week.
States can impose additional requirements, and in the past have taken aim at particularly hazardous workplaces.
Those state laws, though, are periodically rolled back for a variety of reasons. Some state economies depend on industries such as agriculture that rely on immigrant or migrant workers and their families, said Reid Maki, director of advocacy at the Child Labor Coalition.
During hard economic times, some parents need their children to get a job or work more hours to help make ends meet, he added. And during periods of full employment — the U.S. unemployment rate of 3.4 percent is the lowest in decades — employers want a larger workforce to ease their hiring strains.
Experts say that can come at a high cost to children who take these jobs, and hurt the labor market’s long-term prospects.
Some jobs that children perform — babysitting, waiting restaurant tables, scooping ice cream — can be good for them, said University at Albany professor Shawn Bushway. Those kinds of jobs can teach responsibility, professionalism and financial literacy, said Bushway, who studies the effect of work on young people.
But other, more trade-oriented jobs, such as agricultural work, landscaping and construction, could be more pernicious, said Debbie Berkowitz, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. They’re less likely to employ middle- or upper-class children who take jobs for workplace experience or pocket change.
Instead, Berkowitz and other child labor critics say, children in lower income families are more likely to be hired for those roles. “A lot of the child labor jobs are menial jobs and those skills aren’t transferrable,” Berkowitz said.
Bushway and other researchers have found that the less restrictive state regulations are with youth employment, the more children will work, and the more hours they will work. But limiting the number of hours children can work can help their education, Berkowitz said.
“They don’t have to go to college, but they can learn a skill and get into an apprentice program and pull everybody up,” she said. “And they can still work on the weekends and after school for certain hours, but they should be focused on school.”
Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.