States ease teen employment laws amid rising child labor violations

As labor shortages continue across several industries, a number of states are trying a controversial new strategy: making it easier to employ teenagers. 

Over the past two years, bills that make it easier for minors to work at paid jobs have been introduced in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Arkansas. 

But each was written with a different focus and in a variety of contexts. For example, the Minnesota bill focused on making it easier for construction companies to hire 16- and 17-year-olds. 

The New Jersey bill allowed minors between 16 and 18 to work up to 50 hours a week (or 10 hours a day) during their summer break.

In Iowa, the U.S. Department of Labor sent a letter to Iowa lawmakers saying some regulations in the state bill were “inconsistent” with federal laws, like letting 16- and 17-year-olds operate dangerous tools. Arkansas is one of the few states that has already passed one of these bills: the Youth Hiring Act of 2023. It removed the requirement that children under 16 needed permission from the Division of Labor to get a job in order to ‘restore decision-making to parents.’ 

In a statement to Scripps News, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office said she believes in protecting kids but added, “This permit was an arbitrary burden on parents to get permission from the government for their child to get a job. All child labor laws that actually protect children still apply, and we expect businesses to comply just as they are required to do now.”

A common theme throughout each of these efforts is this central question: do these changes open up more opportunities for exploitation? Detractors of the bills, like child advocacy groups, say yes. 

But some supporters, like independent business associations, say the fears are overblown; they argue these reforms can help tackle the labor shortage and give teens critical job experience. This wave of rolling back restrictions comes amid some troubling reports. 

High-profile investigations have found a pattern of industries exploiting illegal child labor, often in dangerous environments and in violation of a number of labor laws.

Earlier this year, the Scripps News investigation team took an in-depth look at Packers Sanitation Services Inc., the subject of a recent federal investigation.

Federal records obtained by Scripps News describe teens suffering injuries from chemical burns, then going to school and falling asleep in class. One 17-year-old quit high school because they were working and tired from cleaning.

“We started this in January when we found out that underage workers were in a slaughterhouse in Grand Island, Nebraska. So we started there, taking a look at that case, and then it expanded all over the country. We talked to a mother of two children in North Carolina. She has two children under the age of ten that were helping out in the blueberry harvest. And we asked, How can you do this? How can you put your kids into this type of work?” said Scripps News investigative reporter and editor Patrick Terpstra. “And she was saying, ‘We are so desperate to make ends meet that any little bit that they can do can help.’ And well, they come with me into the fields. Even though we’re out in the sun around these pesticides, at least I can keep an eye on them. And I’m not having to get daycare. So these families are really going through these tough decisions.”

And some of these tough decisions can lead to deadly results. At least three 16-year-olds have died this summer alone in industrial accidents.

According to data from the Department of Labor, the number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws has been on a steep decline since 2001. But since 2015, violations have been creeping up.

Last year, the U.S. Labor Department recorded a 37% increase in the number of minors employed in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“So what we found is that a lot of these child labor cases involve undocumented immigrants. And it’s not just about the kids; it’s about their entire families. So in a lot of cases, you have families that are coming to the U.S., and they come from obviously very desperate situations, trying to make ends meet in this country. And the only way they can do that is to put children to work,” said Terpstra.

Most cases involve children working more or later hours than allowed. But the Department of Labor found nearly 700 children working illegally in hazardous jobs in fiscal year 2022.

That’s the highest annual figure in about a decade.

“How can it be such an open secret? And the adults in the room don’t do anything? And time and again, we heard that that could cause more harm than good. You could end up breaking up families, or you could end up making a difficult economic situation for a family. So not only is it an open secret in so many places, but there’s real incentive not to speak out, to not blow the whistle,” said Terpstra.

Early work experiences can be hugely impactful for teens looking to prepare for the workforce or make extra income.

But as dangerous child labor cases continue to climb, fears remain that the rolling back of red tape may come at a dangerous price.