Weakening child labor laws is no way to build an economy

Kentucky should ignore the siren call of other states’ shortsighted solutions

April 24, 2023 5:40 am

An archival photograph of a cotton mill in Georgia, where two young boys stand on electric looms in order to reach the top shelf while at work. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Consider this an early intervention for Kentucky lawmakers and business leaders: Don’t follow other states in weakening child-labor laws.

In the frantic scramble to find more workers to rebuild the economy, businesses are violating federal laws and states are allowing children to work longer, in more dangerous jobs and with less liability on employers.

The U.S. Labor Department reported a 69-percent increase in children being employed illegally since 2018. In the last fiscal year, at least 835 companies employed more than 3,800 children illegally. At least 10 states introduced or passed laws rolling back child protections in the past two years, according to the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute.

While there are definite benefits to teens gaining work experience, there is peril in taking steps back to the last century, when young children were exploited rather than educated. We also know that the pandemic has caused children to fall further behind academically and experience more mental-health challenges. Kentucky’s children rank 37th in child well-being in the 2022 Kids Count survey.

Currently, the state has reasonable regulations that limit work hours for teens, prohibit dangerous work, and even require a 2.0 grade-point average to work during the school year. But that could easily change. Not just because the state has the 48th lowest workforce participation rate. Lawmakers also operate in lockstep with other GOP-controlled legislatures.

In a way, they act like children — following the crowd while competing to be the most conservative. Scores of donors, political activists and think tanks help keep all in line. Consider some of the policies Kentucky has duplicated in recent years:

  • Imposing extreme abortion laws.
  • Ending state gun regulations and refusing to follow federal ones.
  • Banning gender-affirming medical care for minors.
  • Prohibiting schools from teaching about gender identity.
  • Allowing teachers to promote their religious beliefs in schools.
  • Blocking payroll deductions for union dues.

None were top priorities for many Kentucky residents. They do, however, fit within a national conservative political strategy, which includes undermining federal regulation of nearly everything.

Recent federal investigations into child-labor violations include Hyundai and Kia supply chains in Alabama, at JBS meatpacking plants in Nebraska and Minnesota, and at fast-food chains including McDonald’sDunkin Donuts and Chipotle.

Nebraska’s Packers Sanitation Services recently paid a $1.5 million fine for employing 102 children in dangerous meatpacking jobs across eight states. Several youths, including a 13-year-old, suffered chemical burns and other injuries. U.S. law prohibits those under age 16 from working in most factory settings. Those under 18 are barred from the most dangerous jobs in industrial plants.

Congress has proposed legislation to strengthen penalties for violations, yet some state proposals could end up challenging federal guidelines.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law last month legislation that rolls back requirements for businesses to verify the age of a child or get parental permission for work. New Hampshire and Nebraska lowered the age to bus tables where alcohol is served and extended work hours when school is in session.

In Iowa, Republican legislators are currently debating a bill to lift restrictions on hazardous work for 14- to 15-year-olds, allow those 14.5 years to drive to and for work; allow 16 year-olds to serve alcohol; extend work hours and grant employer immunity from civil liability for workplace injuries, illness or death.

Teen workers are low-hanging fruit for businesses challenged by low unemployment and a reshuffled workforce. People are searching for jobs with higher pay, better benefits and improved work conditions. Some businesses have been forced to increase compensation, invest more in automation and broaden recruitment. For example, Kentucky has set up the Prison to Work Pipeline to move former inmates directly into jobs.

During a February meeting of the National Governors Association, Microsoft Vice Chair and President Brad Smith explained the situation: “Our economies are going to need to adapt. We will face permanent shortages of nurses and hospitals and people in grocery stores unless we figure out how to manage economies without the growth of human beings to which we’ve become accustomed.”

Learning how to manage the economy should not mean allowing 13-year-olds to work around dangerous chemicals or 14.5-year-olds to drive. Young workers have much higher rates of non-fatal injuries on the job and the highest rates of injuries requiring emergency-room attention, reports the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

After the Great Depression, this country passed the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act which made clear that sacrificing children was no way to build a strong economy. And it’s certainly not the solution for the current economy, which can prosper only by reshaping the future — not echoing the past.

Kentucky should ignore the siren call of shortsighted solutions.

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Vanessa Gallman
Vanessa Gallman

Vanessa Gallman, a Kentucky Lantern freelance columnist, worked for more than two decades as editorial page editor for the Lexington Herald-Leader. She was also a local government editor for The Washington Post and a national correspondent for Knight-Ridder Inc.