The States Rolling Back Child Labor Protection Laws

It took vigilance by educators at Walnut Middle School in Grand Island, Nebraska, to blow open one of the most egregious cases of U.S. child labor abuse in recent memory.  In August 2022, the school told police about acid burns on the hand and knee of a 14-year-old student who said she worked nights at a local slaughterhouse.

A Department of Labor investigation into the incident found that Packers Sanitation Services, a Wisconsin-based leading food safety management company, had been employing minors in overnight shifts to use “caustic chemicals to clean razor sharp saws” in abattoir-cleaning operations. PSSI paid $1.5 million after the Labor Department found the company had hired 102 children as young as 13, including unaccompanied undocumented minors who recently crossed the southern border into the United States, in violation of federal child-labor laws. It is important to be familiar with labor laws – here are the labor laws your boss doesn’t want you to know about.

The high-profile case helped urge Biden administration officials to escalate efforts to root out illegal child-labor practices, including the creation of an interagency task force. Last year, there were 835 cases involving child-labor violations, the highest number since at least 2013, based on data posted to the Labor Department’s website. An estimated 3,876 minors were employed in these violations, a 178% increase compared to 2013.

Despite this spike in child-labor violations, some states are moving to loosen child-labor laws, in most cases making it easier and cheaper to employ underage workers as young as 14. 

To identify the states that have introduced legislation or enacted laws to make it easier and cheaper to employ minors, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed an analysis of enacted or pending state legislation across the country by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning labor-policy nonprofit research group. The status of pending legislation has been updated as of May 31.

At least 14 states have introduced bills to loosen state child-labor laws since 2021. At least five states have signed these bills into law, most of which increase the number of hours underage workers as young as 14 can work. The most controversial of these measures is in Iowa, where Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill into law that contradicts federal prohibitions on hazardous jobs.

For example, Iowa state agencies can approve minors to operate industrial machinery under the auspices of “work-based learning” or a “school or employer-administered, work-related program,” according to the EPI.

Among introduced legislation is a bill in Maine that would allow minors to work in unsupervised child care services and also increases the number of children that any single worker can legally have in their care. Lawmakers in Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin have either introduced bills or enacted laws making it easier to hire minors to work in establishments that sell or serve alcoholic beverages. In some cases these laws contradict federal laws. (Also see, domestic workers hold the most jobs in these 12 states.)

Federal law prohibits children under the age of 14 from working most types of jobs. It also stipulates that children under the age of 16 can only work up to three hours on a school day and 18 hours per week when school is in session, and only until 7 p.m. during the school year. The federal government also lists numerous types of jobs that minors are prohibited from doing because of safety considerations.

Here are at least 10 states that have introduced or passed laws rolling back child labor protections

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