This story was originally published in Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In the past two years, lawmakers in at least 11 states have sought to loosen child labor laws to help employers fill empty jobs, even as federal officials and news investigations suggest that many minors working in manufacturing, meatpacking and construction jobs are being exploited or hurt.
The unemployment rate sits at 3.5% — a level last reached in 1969 — and businesses of all types, from factories to restaurants to retail stores, are struggling to find workers. Some state legislators, mostly Republicans, see teenagers as a partial solution. They also argue that relaxing the rules will prompt more teens to seek out valuable work experiences and make it easier for them to supplement their families’ incomes.
But critics say the bills, backed by business groups, are an attempt to roll back critical child labor protections that are nearly a century old.
“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, asked lawmakers during a hearing on a bill there. “There is a reason our society said that it is not appropriate for children to work in those conditions.”
The legislation in Iowa would, for example, allow children as young as 14 to work in meat coolers and industrial laundries. In Ohio, Republican state senators last month approved a bill that would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work until 9 p.m. during the school year. And in Minnesota, a proposal would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work on construction sites.
“Eliminating work opportunities for youth just because of their age will make it even harder for businesses to find reliable employees,” state Sen. Rich Draheim (R), the sponsor of the Minnesota bill, said in a statement provided to Stateline. “Businesses teach these youth workers skills that will prepare them for their future — and maybe even attract them to their industry for life.”
Arkansas and Tennessee enacted changes last month. A new Arkansas law removes a requirement that children under 16 provide proof of parental consent to work, while the Tennessee law scraps the prohibition on 16- and 17-year-olds working in restaurants that derive more than a quarter of their revenue from alcohol.
“We’re desperately needing some extra workers between the ages of 16 and 17 to work at some of these restaurants,” Tennessee state Rep. Dale Carr (R) said during a February hearing on the legislation, which he sponsored. Carr represents Sevierville, a tourist destination in east Tennessee.
State Sen. Ed Jackson (R), who sponsored the bill in the Tennessee Senate, said the goal was “to try to address staffing problems in the hospitality industry,” but also to “encourage Tennesseans to enter the workforce at a younger age in order to gain valuable experience.”
Between 2001 and 2021, the share of 16- to 19-year-olds not working increased by 22.4 percentage points, according to an analysis of federal data by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.
Many adults lament this trend, perhaps because they fondly remember their teenage jobs scooping ice cream, waiting tables or working the cash register.
But in a report released last month, the Economic Policy Institute argues that the decline in teenage employment is a positive development, since it largely reflects the fact that more teenagers are staying in school. Of the 16- to 19-year-olds who said they were not working in 2021, 58.1% said it was because they were in school — up 21 percentage points compared with 2001.
“Putting off work in order to obtain more skills and education is a positive trend — for both individuals and the economy — not one that should be slowed or reversed,” the report states.
EPI notes that backers of the state bills include national and state branches of the National Federation of Independent Business, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association, as well as lodging and tourism associations, homebuilders and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group.
“Attempts to weaken state-level child labor standards are part of a coordinated campaign backed by industry groups intent on eventually diluting federal standards that cover the whole country,” the report asserts.
But Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, said the legislation in her state is simply designed to open up more work opportunities for students who want, or need, to earn extra money. Dunker told Stateline that her group is most interested in provisions that would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work later on school nights; allow some underage workers to obtain a driver’s license to drive to and from a job; and allow 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 were never able to recoup our workforce.”
“This is a youth employment bill,” she said. “There isn’t a youth job in the state that isn’t at least $10 an hour, and most are $15.”
Debbie Berkowitz, a former federal and union worker safety official who is now a fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, said that for decades, policymakers generally have agreed on the need to protect minors in the workplace. Recently, though, she has seen a “pretty pronounced” 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 told Stateline. “These entry-level jobs provide little in terms of skills.”
Berkowitz said there is a place for true apprenticeship programs and opportunities for minors to work in safe environments, but certain dangerous industries should be off-limits for children. She added that government workplace safety regulators at the state and federal level are vastly underfunded, leaving most workplaces unchecked until a major injury or death occurs.
“There are certain low-road industries that are going to cut down on labor costs where they can,” she said.
The state-level push to loosen rules comes amid a rise in the number of child labor violations tracked by the U.S. Department of Labor. Last year, there were 835 child labor violation cases involving 3,876 children. The number of minors illegally employed in fiscal 2022 was 37% higher than in fiscal 2021 and 283% higher than in fiscal 2015.
One major case concluded in February when Packers Sanitation Services Inc., one of the nation’s largest cleaning services for meatpacking plants, paid $1.5 million in civil penalties after the Department of Labor found that it had employed at least 102 children in hazardous jobs in eight states, including Arkansas, Minnesota and Tennessee.
Agency investigators found that the company had children — 13 to 17 years old — working overnight shifts performing such jobs as using caustic chemicals to clean razor-sharp saws.
The state 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 schoolers working in roofing, meatpacking and other dangerous occupations, according to a recent investigation by The New York Times.
Late last month, the Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a new collaboration to combat exploitation of children in workplaces.
“The Fair Labor Standards Act and its child labor protections apply in all states, and no state has the ability to limit these provisions,” U.S. Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda said in a statement provided to Stateline. “The Department will vigorously enforce child labor protections in all states and is closely monitoring state action in this area.”