NASHVILLE, Tennessee — In the past two years, lawmakers in at least 11 states have sought to ease child labor laws to help employers fill job openings, even as federal officials and news investigations indicate that many minors work in manufacturing, meatpacking, and construction jobs. being exploited or abused.
The unemployment rate is 3.5% — a level it last reached in 1969 — and businesses of all kinds, from factories to restaurants to retail stores, are struggling to find workers.
Some state lawmakers, most of them Republicans, see teens as a partial solution. They also argue that relaxing the rules will prompt more teens to seek valuable work experiences and make it easier for them to supplement their family’s income.
But critics say the bills, backed by business groups, are an attempt to roll back important child labor protections nearly a century old.
“Remember the pictures of children in manufacturing and other dangerous work situations from the early 1900s?” Connie Ryan, executive director of the Iowa State Interfaith Alliance, Asked by lawmakers during a hearing on the bill there. “There is a reason our society has said it is not appropriate for children to work in these conditions.”
Legislation in Iowa, for example, Allowing children under the age of 14 to work In meat coolers and industrial laundries. In Ohio, Republican senators last month approved a bill that would Allowing 14-15 year olds To work until 9pm during the school year. And in Minnesota, it will be the proposal Allowing 16 and 17 year olds to work on construction sites.
“Eliminating job opportunities for young people just because of their age will make it harder for companies to find reliable employees,” Minnesota Republican Sen. Rich Draheim, sponsor of the Minnesota bill, said in a statement. “Companies teach these young workers skills that will prepare them for their future—and maybe even lure them into their industry for life.”
Arkansas and Tennessee made changes last month. New Arkansas law removes the requirement Children under the age of 16 provide proof of parental consent to workwhile the Tennessee law Repeal the ban on 16- and 17-year-olds working In restaurants, which generate more than a quarter of their revenue from alcohol.
“We’re desperate for some additional 16- to 17-year-old workers to work in some of these restaurants,” Tennessee Republican Rep. Del Carre said during a February hearing on the legislation he sponsored. Carr represents Sevierville, a tourist destination in East Tennessee.
GOP state Sen. Ed Jackson, who sponsored the bill in the Tennessee Senate, said the goal was “to try to address employment problems in the hospitality industry,” but also to “encourage Tennessees to enter the workforce at a younger age in order to gain valuable experience.” “.
Fond memories of color perceptions in adolescents’ careers
Between 2001 and 2024, the share of 16- to 19-year-olds who are not working increased by 22.4 percentage points, according to the Federal data analysis by the Economic Policy Institutea left-leaning think tank.
Many adults lament the trend, perhaps because they fondly remember their teen jobs getting ice cream, waiting tables or working at the cash register.
But in a report released last month, the Economic Policy Institute argues that the decline in teen employment is a positive development, largely because it reflects the fact that more teens are staying in school. Of 16-19-year-olds who said they weren’t working in 2024, 58.1% said it was because they were in school – up 21 percentage points from 2001.
“Delaying action in order to gain access to more skills and education is a positive trend – for both people and the economy – and not one that should be slowed or reversed,” the report states.
EPI notes that supporters of the state bills include the national and state chapters of the National Federation of Independent Business, the Chamber of Commerce, and the National Restaurant Association, as well as the housing and tourism associations, homebuilders and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group. .
The report asserts that “attempts to weaken child labor standards at the state level are part of a concerted campaign backed by industry groups that ultimately aims to relax federal standards covering the entire state.”
Youth Employment Bill
Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, said the legislation in her state is simply designed to open up more job opportunities for students who want, or need, to earn extra money.
Dunker said her group cares most about provisions that allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work later on school nights; allowing some minor workers to have a driver’s license to drive to and from the job; and allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to take and deliver alcohol orders at restaurants.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dunker said, the Iowa restaurant industry laid off about half of its workforce. In the years since, she said, “we’ve never been able to get our workforce back.”
She said, “This is the Youth Employment Bill.” “There is no job for young people in the state that pays less than $10 an hour, and most are $15.”
For decades, policymakers have generally agreed on the need to protect minors in the workplace, said Debbie Berkowitz, a former federal and union safety official who is now a fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanowitz Work and Poor Initiative. Recently, however, it has seen a “very visible” shift in the states.
“This is a push by certain industries to see if they can get away with hiring children so they can pay them less and disguise it as job training,” she said. “These entry-level jobs offer a little bit in terms of skills.”
There is a place for real apprenticeship programs and opportunities for minors to work in safe environments, Berkowitz said, but some dangerous industries should be off limits to children. She added that government workplace safety regulators at the state and federal levels are severely underfunded, leaving most workplaces unattended until a major injury or death occurs.
“There are some low-cost industries that will cut labor costs where they can,” she said.
Increased child labor violations
The statewide push to ease rules comes amidst Increased number of child labor violations Followed by the US Department of Labor.
Last year, there were 835 child labor violation cases involving 3,876 children. The number of minors working illegally in fiscal year 2024 was 37% higher than fiscal year 2024 and 283% higher than fiscal year 2015.
One The main issue concluded in February when sanitation services packers Inc. Inc., one of the nation’s largest cleaning services for meatpacking plants, paid $1.5 million in civil fines after the Labor Department found it employed at least 102 children in hazardous jobs in eight states, including Arkansas, Minnesota and Tennessee.
Agency investigators found that the company had children — ages 13 to 17 — working night shifts performing jobs such as using caustic chemicals to clean sharpened saws.
The state’s legislative push also comes amid a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States and joining the workforce, including middle school students who work in roofing, meatpacking and other hazardous occupations, according to The last investigation by The New York Times.
Late last month, the US Department of Labor and the US Department of Health and Human Services She announced a new collaboration to combat child exploitation in the workplace.
“The Fair Labor Standards Act and its child labor protections apply in all states, and no state has the power to limit these provisions,” US Attorney for Labor Affairs Seema Nanda said in a statement provided to Stateline. protection in all countries and closely monitors the state’s actions in this field.