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America divided over major effort to rewrite child labor laws

Like child labor violations skyrocket across the countryDozens of states are stepping up efforts to update child labor laws — with widespread efforts to weaken the laws, but some to strengthen them as well.

The push for changes in child labor laws comes as employers — particularly in restaurants and other service-providing industries — have been struggling with labor shortages since the start of the pandemic, and hired more teenagers whose salaries are generally lower than those of adults.

Labor experts attribute the rise in child labor violations, which have tripled in the past 10 years according to a Post analysis, to a tight job market that has prompted employers to hire more teenagers, as well as of migrant children arriving from Latin America. In 2023, teenagers aged 16 to 19 were working or looking for work at the highest annual rate since 2009, according to Labor Department data.

That led to the biggest effort in years to change the patchwork of state laws that regulate child labor, with major implications for the nation’s youth and job market. At least 16 states have one or more bills aimed at weakening their child labor laws and at least 13 are seeking to strengthen them, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute and other sources. Among these states, there are 43 proposed bills.

Since 2022, 14 states have adopted or enacted new child labor laws.

Federal law prohibits all minors from working in jobs deemed hazardous, including manufacturing, roofing, meatpacking and demolition. Fourteen and fifteen year olds are not allowed to work after 7 p.m. on school nights or after 9 p.m. on weekends.

Most states have stricter laws than federal rules, although efforts are underway, led by Republican lawmakers, to roll back these restrictions, supported by restaurant associations, liquor associations and builders associations of dwellings.

A Florida-based lobbying group, the Foundation for Government Accountability, which has fought to promote conservative interests such as restricting access to anti-poverty programs, written or pushed for recent bills to remove child labor protections in at least six states.

Among them is Indiana’s new law repealing all restrictions on work hours for 16- and 17-year-olds, who previously could not work after 10 p.m. or before 6 a.m. on school days. Earlier in March, Indiana enacted the law that also extends legal work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds.

Indiana lawmakers have argued over the bill, with state Sen. Mike Gaskill (R) saying at a hearing in March, “don’t think for a second that this is about “evil employers who attempt to manipulate and take advantage of children.” But Sen. Andrea Hunley (D-) called the bill an “irresponsible and dystopian” way of “addressing our labor shortage.”

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law new changes allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to work seven days in a row. It also removes all scheduling restrictions for teens schooled online or at home, allowing them to work night shifts.

Some states have reported a growing number of child labor violations over the past year as investigators uncovered violations in Fast foodbut also in dangerous jobs meat packaging, manufacturing and construction, where federal law prohibits minors from working. The U.S. Department of Labor alleged in a February lawsuit that a sanitation company, Fayette Concierge Service, employee children from the age of 13 to cleaning head separators and other killing equipment in slaughterhouses during night shifts in Virginia and Iowa.

Despite these findings, a new Iowa law signed last year by Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) allows miners in the state to work in jobs previously deemed too dangerous, including industrial laundries, light manufacturing, demolition, roofing and excavation, but not in slaughterhouses. Separately, West Virginia passed a new law this month that allows 16- and 17-year-olds carry out roofing work as part of an apprenticeship program.

Six other states are also weighing bills to lift restrictions preventing minors from jobs considered dangerous. A Georgia bill would allow 14-year-olds to work landscaping factory grounds and other prohibited construction sites. The Florida Legislature has passed a law, drafted by the state’s construction industry association, that would allow teenagers to work certain residential construction jobs. He is awaiting approval from DeSantis.

Carol Bowen, chief lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida, testified in favor of the bill in February, saying the state “is experiencing one of the largest skilled labor shortages in the country.” “recent history” and that the construction industry must identify “the next generation.”

Bowen said the bill limits the work of 16- and 17-year-olds to home construction projects, adding that teens would not be able to work on anything taller than six feet.

In Kentucky, the House passed a bill that prevents the state from having child labor laws stricter than federal protections, effectively removing all restrictions on when 16- and 17-year-olds can work, as well as meal and meal requirements. breaks for all minors.

Meanwhile, Alabama, West Virginia, Missouri and Georgia are considering bills this year that would eliminate work permit requirements for minors, which prove age or parental or school permission to work. Most states require these permits. Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) sign a similar bill was passed last year.

Republican lawmakers often say they are trying to increase opportunities or bring requirements in line with federal standards when working to relax child labor laws. They say easing restrictions help employers fill labor shortages, while improving teens’ work ethic and reducing their screen time. Another common refrain is that allowing later work hours provides high school students with similar opportunities to college athletes whose games often run later than state law allows teenagers to work.

“These are educators who drive cars. They’re not children,” said state Rep. Linda Chaney (R), sponsor of Florida’s new bill that expands work hours for 16- and 17-year-olds, at a hearing in December.

Indiana state Sen. Andy Zay (R), who supported the new state law extending work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds, told the Washington Post that as A father of five, including a son who plays high school basketball, he felt saddened by comments from lawmakers who opposed the law that teens would be mistreated if they worked later.

“I don’t see that and I don’t feel that. And they would definitely have the freedom to move forward,” Zay said.

But the rise in child labor violations and recent death The number of minors illegally employed in dangerous jobs has also prompted labor advocates to strengthen state laws.

In recent weeks, the Virginia state legislature unanimously approved a bill that would increase penalties on employers for child labor violations from $1,000 to $2,500 for common violations. He is awaiting approval from Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R).

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Rep. Holly M. Seibold, D-Fairfax, told the Post she was “shocked and horrified” to learn recently that Virginia poultry plants were illegally employing migrant children and authored legislation to increase penalties.

Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Nebraska and Colorado are also pushing to increase employer penalties for child labor violations, with lawmakers calling them outdated and not substantial enough to deter employers from ‘break the law. For example, Iowa fines employers $2,500 for a serious but non-fatal injury to a minor working illegally in a hazardous industry and $500 if there is no serious injury. The new bill proposes an additional $5,000 penalty for an injury resulting in a workers’ compensation claim.

Terri Gerstein, director of the Wagner Labor Initiative at New York University, said the focus on increasing penalties is “a good thing, but it’s not enough,” given that many States have very minimal resources devoted to law enforcement.

This year, Colorado lawmakers introduced the toughest plan to crack down on employers who violate child labor laws. The legislation would increase fines for child labor violations and deposit them into a fund for enforcement. Lawmakers are also seeking to make public information about companies that violate child labor laws; in many states this information is prohibited to the public. Colorado would also legally protect parents of illegally employed minors, as some have done criminal charges for child abuse.

Colorado state Rep. Sheila Lieder (D-), who introduced the bill, told the Post that Colorado’s child labor laws are not punitive enough to deter employers from violating the laws. on child labor, with only a $20 penalty per violation.

“The fine in Colorado is equivalent to a few cups of coffee at a branded coffee store,” Lieder said. “I was just, like, there’s something more to do.”

Jacqueline Aguilar, a 21-year-old student in Alamosa, Colorado, who supports the bill, worked in lettuce and potato fields in Colorado’s Eastern Plains from the age of 13, alongside her immigrant parents, to buy school clothes.

“The laws need to be stricter because a lot of people don’t report (violations),” said Aguilar, who worked 12 hours in the fields starting at 4:30 a.m. She said she had no knowledge of her employment rights at the time. “Once I started getting older and my mother became disabled because of her work, my view of child labor changed. »

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