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Steven Greenhouse, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.” He wrote this column for the Los Angeles Times.
Suddenly lawmakers in several states are rushing to relax child labor laws to make it easier for teenagers to work longer hours, later hours and more dangerous jobs.
In Arkansas, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law that scraps the requirement that 14- and 15-year-olds first obtain work papers before getting a job. Ohio’s state Senate voted overwhelmingly to let 14- and-15-year-olds work until 9 p.m. on school days. In Minnesota, Republican lawmakers are pushing to let 16- and 17-year-olds work on construction sites, and in Iowa, to let 16- and 17-year-olds serve alcoholic beverages in bars.
It’s hard to imagine a worse time to roll back restrictions on child labor, even as some lawmakers say these measures are needed because many businesses face difficulties finding enough workers. A recent New York Times report found children (some as young as 12) illegally working in factories, some supplying companies such as General Motors, Ford, Walmart, Target and Whole Foods.
In February, the U.S. Department of Labor slapped a $1.5 million fine on Packers Sanitation Services, a cleaning contractor that had illegally hired more than 100 workers age 13 to 17 to clean 13 meat-processing plants in eight states. These teens frequently worked overnight shifts, with some suffering injuries from using dangerous cleaning agents.
The Labor Department says the child labor problem is growing; it found more than 3 1/2 times as many minors employed illegally last year as in 2015. The official data may represent only a tiny share of such cases because reporting and enforcement are difficult, and companies often do whatever it takes to hide these violations.
The push to ease child labor regulations comes at a terrible time because U.S. schoolchildren moved backward academically during the pandemic. Many studies have found that students who work 20 or more hours a week are more likely to drop out of school and have their grades decline, not to mention that they’re often too exhausted to do schoolwork or stay awake in class.
Dropping out can lead to worse economic prospects. High school dropouts had median weekly earnings of just $626 in 2021, 23 percent below the $809 earned by high school graduates (without college). Workers with a bachelor’s degree earn $1,334 a week, more than double what high school dropouts earn.
All this speaks to the need to maintain child labor laws and step up enforcement. Unfortunately, the move to ease such laws — an effort long backed by the libertarian Koch brothers and their network — sends a strong message to employers that hiring young teens is just fine. These legislative moves could further embolden employers to flout child labor regulations.
There are numerous obstacles to effective enforcement of child labor law: Many teenagers use false IDs, Labor Department inspectors in many states say their offices are badly understaffed and there’s a flood of unaccompanied immigrant teens crossing the border who are desperate to find jobs.
Sanders’ office argues that Arkansas laws — even with the new relaxed rules — remain plenty strong to provide adequate protection to young workers. (The new law’s backers said that getting work papers was too much of a hassle.) But some child welfare and labor advocates, perhaps remembering Lewis Hine’s early-20th century photos of children toiling in mines and factories, worry that the nation is moving backward on child labor laws that have been in place for generations.
Connie Ryan, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, told lawmakers, “Do you remember the images of children in manufacturing and other dangerous work from the early 1900s? There is a reason our society said that it is inappropriate to work in those conditions.”
Teenagers who do paid work for five, 10, 15 hours a week in safe jobs can have worthwhile experiences. They can learn responsibility, punctuality and other skills. But rolling back laws so that they can work six hours on school days or until 11 p.m. can have broader negative consequences. It’s important that teens have enough time for school, sports and other activities and enough time with friends and families and for sleep.
The U.S. faces a labor shortage, but we should be wary of trying to plug that hole with 14- and 15-year-olds. (Some of the very people who are pushing to let younger teens work longer and later are the same people opposed to letting in more immigrants who could fill some of those job vacancies.)
Hiring more 14- through 17-year-olds and letting them work longer hours might help some businesses in the short term. But it could shift these teens’ focus and energies away from school, making it more likely they will drop out and ultimately become lower-paid, less-productive workers. Such a decline in educational performance would not only be bad for these teenagers’ futures, but could also hurt America’s overall economy in the long run.