The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Expanding child labor is exactly what America’s kids don’t need

Activists gather near the Hearthside Foods packaging facility on March 6 in Bollingbrook, Ill. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
5 min

“A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy can plead no justification for the existence of child labor,” wrote Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937, as he sent the legislation known as the Fair Labor Standards Act to Congress. With the bill, which also established a national minimum wage, lawmakers condemned the ghastly practice of children toiling on factory floors to the past.

But American child labor is making a comeback. Underage children are operating fryers in restaurant kitchens and assembling parts at auto plants. Last month, when the New York Times published a blockbuster expose on how some of the nation’s most prominent companies depend on subcontractors who illegally employ migrant children, it brought attention to an ongoing horror. The Economic Policy Institute recently crunched Labor Department data and discovered an almost 300 percent increase in child labor violations since 2015.

Yes, politicians from both parties are decrying the growing problem of child migrant labor. But whether children should work more hours in dangerous jobs appears to be settling in as a partisan issue. Republicans in statehouses nationwide are racing to make it easier for companies to hire youngsters. This isn’t just an attempt, as proponents claim, to address post-pandemic worker shortages while freeing teens to earn pocket money. It is part of an ongoing campaign to roll back worker protections.

In Arkansas, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has signed legislation doing away with regulations demanding 14- and 15-year-old teens receive a work permit before taking on paid employment. A bill in Ohio seeks to allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work until 9 p.m. during the school year, in defiance of federal law. In Minnesota, a Republican legislator introduced legislation to let the construction industry recruit 16- and 17-year-old workers. In Iowa, a bill in the state’s House of Representatives would make it easier to employ 14-year-olds in the meatpacking industry.

Do Democrats occasionally join this push? Unfortunately, yes. A bill co-sponsored by Sens. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) and Angus King (I-Maine) and Maine House Democrats Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree would allow parents who own logging operations to employ their 16- and 17-year-old children to operate mechanized equipment — under supervision. Logging, for those wondering, is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. No mother or father, no matter how loving, can change that.

Alexandra Petri: We must protect the children by ... rolling back child labor laws

Meanwhile, not a single Republican has signed onto legislation recently introduced by Senate Democrats that would significantly increase the fines on companies for violations of child labor laws, from the maximum of $5,000 per violation up to $132,270 for routine violations, and from $15,138 to $601,150 when children are seriously injured or killed on the job.

In addition to claiming expanded paid work for teens is a win-win for employers and financially needy children, advocates are draping their appeals in the language of parental rights. That’s right — the same logic that dictates parents should be able to protect vulnerable teens by blocking controversial library books, sex ed and the full racial history of the United States. Requiring work permits for children under 16 “steps in front of parents’ decision-making process,” said the Arkansas state representative who spearheaded the successful measure there.

That’s disingenuous. “The party that is so concerned about children and what they are hearing and reading in schools, they are the same party that is pushing all these bills,” says Judy Conti, director of government affairs for the National Employment Law Project.

In reality, all this family talk is there to obscure the bottom line. “Child labor allows business owners to reduce average wages, while pretending they’re just providing opportunities,” says historian Erik M. Conway, co-author of the book “The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market.”

This is not the first modern push by the Republican Party to loosen child labor laws. The Reagan administration tried to do so in 1982 — when the adult unemployment rate hovered near double digits — only to retreat in the face of widespread condemnation. After a similar uproar, the Trump administration backed away from a plan to eliminate an Obama-era regulation banning 16- and 17-year-old nursing home workers from operating patient lifts unsupervised.

Let’s be clear: We’re not talking about kids babysitting, getting a summer job, or working at the mall for a few hours after school, all of which are perfectly legal. We’re talking about teenagers working long and late hours year-round in often dangerous occupations, endangering their health, rest, safety and future.

Teenage workers are injured at significantly higher rates than adults employed in the same roles. Working more than 15 hours a week during high school is associated with a higher chance of failing to graduate from college. Academic performance can suffer — which is particularly concerning after a pandemic that saw significant drops in reading and math scores. And immigrant children seeking asylum especially need to attend school, not be pushed into full-time work at 12 or 13 years old.

When it comes to child labor laws, we should — if anything — be putting tighter curbs on employing high school students. If there are concerns about a labor shortage, expand the number of legal immigrants, help teens get work permits to do safe after-school jobs — or simply raise wages. What doesn’t make sense is for one party to be more concerned about the imaginary threat of drag queen story hours than about jobs for children that could cause irreversible harm to their life prospects.