Child Labor Laws are Not Meant to Be Broken

Social Justice Policy Brief #146 | By: Steve Piazza | April 20, 2023

Header photo taken from: khon2.com/Getty Images

Policy Summary

Child labor laws have been in place in the U.S. since the signing of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA). Protections against abuses such as excessive hours worked and hazardous jobs are governed both by federal and state regulations.

These laws also have educational implications. Laws at the federal level mandate that students aged 14 and 15 can only work three hours on a school day and no more than 18 hours per week that school is in session. This must be done during the hours of 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM, though there are exceptions during periods of no school.

At the state level, most follow federal statutes, though with some exceptions. For example, according to the Department of Labor, Idaho students under 16 are allowed to work until 9:00 PM and up to 54 hours a week. Meanwhile, those under 16 in Maine may work up to 50 hours a week when school is in session, and three of those days may be on school days.

Recent easing of restrictions in some state laws have child advocates concerned that diminished protections might not only lead to an increase in child labor abuses, but will have a negative impact on children’s education as well.

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Photo taken from: hrw.org

Policy Analysis

Recent evidence shows a rise in job abuses of those under 18 years of age. The Labor Department reports that child safety violations have grown significantly over the past 7 years, from 1012 to 3876, while the number of occurrences of minors working on hazardous job sites almost doubled.  

A lot of reasons for this exist, but one of the major reasons is that ignored or loosened laws and under sourced government agencies have enabled many companies to hire staffing firms that reportedly have been less than forthright about applicant age. This is exacerbated when sponsors of migrant children are sending them off to work rather than school, or simply that children are victims of traffickers who operate in every state.

The Economic Policy Institute raises concern in a report that any changes in child welfare protections can negatively impact the well-being of children, including reversing a trend showing a ten year increase of teens finishing school. Such concerns have not stopped a number of states from making changes anyway.

In Arkansas, for example, Governor Huckabee Sanders signed into law the Youth Hiring Act of 2023 which states that 16-year-olds no longer need a work permit nor must they verify their age. Related measures are moving forward in Minnesota (workers 16 and 17 years old would be allowed on construction sites) and Iowa (minors would be allowed to work longer hours).

Child Labor Laws are Not Meant to Be Broken

Photo taken from: theguardian.com/Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

It’s true that under the right conditions minors can benefit from a wide range of experiences holding a job. Part time work can provide lifelong skills, self-confidence, and even economic advantages for teens and their families. Yet, it’s also true that allowing a 17-year-old to work 47 hours in one week can have serious effects on young workers.

Numerous studies have shown students who work at least 15 hours during the school week are less likely to participate in school activities, have less time to study, exhibit problem behaviors, are often too tired to be attentive during the school day, and often drop out.

Data on actual dropout numbers is very difficult to get a handle on because of the many different ways it gets calculated. Graduation rates, however, are easier to obtain. According to an Education Week special report in August, 2022, the graduation rate was almost cut in half in 31 states the previous year. Certainly, the pandemic played into this, as some students just didn’t return after being away. But the promise of an immediate income does create a disincentive to return to school. 

Consider this. Young children in the cobalt rich Republic of Congo find themselves out of school and knee-deep in toxic materials earning pennies a day mining for materials used in the manufacturing of American made cars, watches, computers, just about everything that we use. Currently there are calls for extraction of more natural resources in the U.S., and if profit drives things and knows no geopolitical boundaries, what’s to stop the further exploitation of children here even if existing laws cannot protect them?

The United States may be thousands of miles from the Republic of Congo, and many argue that children have been working all throughout history. But that should be no excuse to reduce protections that have improved their lives since the Industrial Revolution, and which can continue to provide some hope to children here, and all over the world.

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Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

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This site goes into greater detail about the FLSA.

For a better understanding of how children are exploited around the world and what’s being/been done to prevent it, this site breaks it down by region and country and even indicates specific industries.

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Stop Child Labor is an advocacy group highlighting the issues and solutions to the problem.

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