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Got a job you can’t fill? Put a kid to work; states making child labor easier to employ

WASHINGTON — Across the country, lawmakers in several states are looking at legislation that allows children to work longer hours on school nights, sometimes in hazardous conditions, and even serve alcohol, while underage.

The efforts are largely led by Republican lawmakers seeking to address worker shortages, the Associated Press reported. In some cases, the law changes run afoul of federal regulations.

Child welfare advocates say the changes represent a coordinated push to roll back protections for minors.

“The consequences are potentially disastrous,” Reid Maki, director of the Washington-based Child Labor Coalition, told the AP. The Child Labor Coalition advocates against exploitative labor policies.

“You can’t balance a perceived labor shortage on the backs of teen workers,” Maki said.

Teen workers are more likely to accept low pay and less likely to unionize or push for better working conditions, Maki said.

“There are employers that benefit from having kind of docile teen workers,” Maki said. And teens are easy targets for industries that rely on vulnerable populations, such as immigrants and the formerly incarcerated, to do dangerous work, he told the AP.

In February, for example, the Labor Department issued a $1.5 million fine to one of the nation’s largest meatpacking sanitation contractors after investigators found the company illegally employed more than 100 children at 13 meat processing sites in eight states. The children were used to clean bone saws and other dangerous equipment in meatpacking plants, often using hazardous chemicals, USA Today reported.

Some underage employees also worked overnight shifts, and at least three sustained injuries on the job, the Labor Department said.

The Department of Labor reported in February that child labor violations had increased by nearly 70% since 2018. The agency is increasing enforcement and asking Congress to allow larger fines against violators.

Lawmakers in at least 10 states have proposed loosening child labor laws for the past two years, a report by the Economic Policy Institute published last month said.

Legislators in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa are now considering relaxing child labor laws to address worker shortages that remain because of a spike in retirements, deaths and illnesses from COVID-19, decreases in legal immigration and other factors.

Wisconsin lawmakers back a proposal to allow 14-year-olds to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants. It would be the lowest such limit nationwide, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

In Ohio, legislators are considering a bill that would allow students ages 14 and 15 to work until 9 p.m. during the school year with their parents’ permission. That conflicts with federal rules, so a companion measure asks Congress to amend its own laws.

Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, students that age can only work until 7 p.m. during the school year, a law passed in 1938 to stop children from being exposed to dangerous conditions and abusive practices in mines, factories, farms and street trades.

In March, Republican Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed legislation eliminating permits that required employers to verify a child’s age and their parent’s consent. Without work permit requirements, companies can more easily claim ignorance when accused of violating child labor laws.

“There’s no reason why anyone should have to get the government’s permission to get a job,” Republican Arkansas Rep. Rebecca Burkes, who sponsored the legislation, said on the House floor. “This is simply about eliminating the bureaucracy that is required and taking away the parent’s decision about whether their child can work.”

Other measures have been approved in New Jersey, New Hampshire and Iowa.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds last year approved a change to let Iowa teens aged 16 and 17 to work unsupervised in childcare centers. Legislators this month OK’d a bill to allow teens of that age to serve alcohol in restaurants. It would also expand the hours minors can work.

Reynolds, who said in April she supports more youth employment, has until June 3 to sign or veto the measure.

Iowa lawmakers balked at provisions that would have allowed children aged 14 and 15 to work dangerous jobs in mining, logging and meatpacking. But they kept some provisions that the Labor Department says would violate federal law, NBC News reported. Those include allowing children as young as 14 to work in freezers and meat coolers and extending work hours in industrial laundries and assembly lines.

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