ECONOMYIn a tight labor market, some states look to another type of worker: Children
Bills advancing in the Iowa and Minnesota state legislatures would roll back child workplace protections to address worker shortages.
By Jacob Bogage
February 11, 2023 at 8:00 a.m. EST
As local economies grapple with a tightening labor market, some state legislatures are looking to relax child labor protections to help employers meet hiring needs.
It’s part of a persistent trend in labor economics, experts say. When employers struggle to find talent, many prefer to hire younger, cheaper workers rather than increase pay and benefits to attract adults.
“Because of the high demand for workers, where there are holes in the system, unfortunately child laborers can get caught up in staffing some of those holes,” said David Weil, a professor of social policy and management at Brandeis University, and a former wage and hour administrator at the Department of Labor.
Legislators in Iowa and Minnesota introduced bills
in January to loosen child labor law regulations around age and workplace
safety protections in some of the country’s most dangerous workplaces.
Minnesota’s bill would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to work construction jobs.
The Iowa measure would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work certain jobs in
At 15, they would be able to work as lifeguards and swimming instructors, perform light assembly-line work after obtaining a waiver from state officials, and load and unload up to 50 pounds of products from vehicles and store shelves with a waiver “depending on the strength and ability of the fifteen-year-old.”
The Iowa proposal would also expand hours teenagers can work during the school year, and would shield businesses from civil liability if a youth worker is sickened, injured or killed on the job.
did not respond to requests for comment. Critics say the proposal is
dangerous and would subject child workers to hazardous environments.
Proponents of the Iowa bill argue that lowering the age limit fills a need. During the same hearing at which Ryan spoke, grocery industry lobbyist Brad Epperly argued an “awful low” number of younger people are working. He cited federal statistics that show the job participation rate for people ages 16 to 24 was about 56 percent in 2021.
A Nebraska labor contractor for meat producer JBS settled with the Labor Department in December to resolve civil charges after regulators alleged the company used “oppressive child labor.” Law enforcement launched an investigation into the plant after an underage worker allegedly sustained chemical burns from cleaning agents used at the facility.
States can impose additional requirements, and in
the past have taken aim at particularly hazardous workplaces.
Some jobs that children perform — babysitting,
waiting restaurant tables, scooping ice cream — can be good for them, said
University at Albany professor Shawn Bushway. Those kinds of jobs can teach
responsibility, professionalism and financial literacy, said Bushway, who
studies the effect of work on young people.
Instead, Berkowitz and other child labor critics say, children in lower income families are more likely to be hired for those roles. “A lot of the child labor jobs are menial jobs and those skills aren’t transferrable,” Berkowitz said.
Bushway and other researchers have found that the less restrictive state regulations are with youth employment, the more children will work, and the more hours they will work. But limiting the number of hours children can work can help their education, Berkowitz said.
“They don’t have to go to college, but they can learn a skill and get into an apprentice program and pull everybody up,” she said. “And they can still work on the weekends and after school for certain hours, but they should be focused on school.”
Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.
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