Putting Children to Work

Weaker state labor laws enable a heartless solution to the labor shortage.

BY JOHN MILLER | May/June 2023

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

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“The U.S. unemployment rate in March was just 3.5%, but among teenagers it was 9.8%. The labor-force participation rate for teenagers has been falling for more than 40 years. One reason fewer young people work ... can be labor laws that make it illegal to hire teenagers at any wage.

Last month in Arkansas, Republican Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the Youth Hiring Act, which nixes the requirement that 14- and 15-year-olds get permission from the state to work. ‘It’s apparently not enough for democrats to trap kids in failing schools. They also want to make it harder for teenagers to work part-time or summer jobs,’ Ms. Sanders wrote on Twitter.

Easing work requirements for young people won’t end the labor shortage, but it will almost certainly help. It will also help young people.”

—Jason L. Riley, “A Little Work Never Hurt Anyone—Including Teenagers,”Wall Street Journal, April 11, 2023.

In late February, the New York Times published the explosive findings of their investigative report on migrant children under the age of 18 working “brutal jobs”across the United States. The report found that teens as young as 13 years old work overnight shifts. Some make auto parts for Ford and General Motors. In eight different states, teens were cleaning machines in meatpacking plants. Still other immigrant children work in processing plants making granola bars and packing bags of Cheerios, in factories stitching “Made in America”tags into garments, on Vermont farms milking cows, and on construction sites.

The supply of migrant children looking for work is plentiful. Some 130,000 unaccompanied minors entered the United States in the last year—three times as many as just five years earlier. Even inspectors from the severely understaffed Department of Labor (DOL) report that from fiscal year 2015 to 2022 the number of child labor violations more than tripled, and the number of cases of minors working illegally in hazardous occupations nearly doubled. Several state legislatures were moved to update their state labor laws. No, not to make child labor laws stricter or to beef up enforcement, but to make it easier for teenagers to enter the labor force at an earlier age and to work longer hours.

For Matt Everson, the Iowa state director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), that’s imperative because, as he told the Des Moines Register, “our business owners are struggling to fill job openings.”And like Jason Riley, the Wall Street Journal columnist, Everson is convinced that working more hours is good for teenagers. Their arguments may strike you as less than credible. You may also consider the actions of the state legislatures that follow their lead wrongheaded. That’s because they are. Let’s see why.

The Business Solution to the Labor Shortage

Everson and Riley did get one thing right: The labor shortage continues. In February 2023 there were 1.74 job openings for each unemployed person looking for a job, not far below the record level of 1.94 in March 2022 set in the midst of the national obsession with the “Great Resignation.”The NFIB’s March 2023 jobs report found that about 43% of all owners of small businesses had job openings they could not fill.

There are myriad ways that employers could fill these job openings. Higher wages and better working conditions would attract more workers, but both would drive up costs. Lower barriers to immigration would dramatically increase the number of adults looking for work. Oh, and then there’s child labor—the solution that businesses, large and small, have glommed onto. It fits well with their push to further deregulate businesses. And teens are cheaper to hire than adult labor, since they are often subject to a minimum wage that is $3 lower than the adult minimum wage for their first 90 days of employment.

Business lobbyists from the NFIB, local chambers of commerce, and other organizations have pushed state legislatures to weaken restrictions on child labor. So far, 10 states, six in the Midwest, have considered proposals that do just that. In 2022 New Jersey enacted a law extending work hours for teens. And then in March 2023, Arkansas enacted its Youth Hiring Act. After signing the bill into law, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted that “It’s apparently not enough for Democrats to trap kids in failing schools. They also want to make it harder for teenagers to work part-time or summer jobs.”

But Isn’t Child Labor Illegal in the United States?

It is. Many of the “reforms” that states are now considering would violate federal labor law. Under the leadership of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member and a long-time child labor reformer, the Roosevelt Administration and Congress enacted the Fair Labor and Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938. The FLSA established the minimum wage, required premium pay for overtime work, and placed limits on child labor.

As a federal law, the FLSA directly regulates businesses that engage in interstate commerce or have annual sales of $500,000, but it does not regulate smaller businesses or businesses that operate in just one state. Still, the FLSA is meant to set the floor for child labor and other workplace standards for businesses in all states.

The FLSA standards for child labor are not especially onerous. For nonagricultural jobs, the minimum age to work nonhazardous jobs is 14 years old. (There is no minimum age for performing nonhazardous work in a family business.) Children under 16 years old are not allowed to work during school hours and are not permitted to work more than three hours on a school day, and not more than eight hours on non-school days. And the minimum wage for teenagers is $4.25 an hour, not the $7.25 federal minimum wage.

The standards for children working in agriculture are even less demanding. The minimum age to work in nonhazardous jobs is as low as 10 years old with parental consent, and outside of school hours, as low as 14 years old without the need for parental consent. Also, there are no restrictions on 16-year-olds performing hazardous work. Finally, many of these young agricultural workers are not covered by the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements.

The Arkansas law will not improve failing schools. Rather, it will make it more difficult for working teenagers to complete their schooling. A minor under 16 years old will no longer need to obtain a work permit that documents their age and is signed by a parent or guardian. And employers will no longer be required to tell the state how many days and hours the minor would be expected to work. Without needing to obtain work permits, employers will be able to hire teenagers without proof of their age and there will be no guarantee that a parent or guardian has approved of their child working.

In May 2023, Iowa’s state legislature passed perhaps the most extreme bill to roll back child labor laws. The legislation will permit 14- and 15-year olds to work until 9 p.m. during the school year and 11 p.m. during the summer. They will also be allowed to work six hours a day during the school year instead of the current four hours per day. The bill would also let 14- and 15-year-olds do more hazardous jobs, including working in freezers and meat coolers. And 16- and 17-year-olds would even be able to do light assembly work involving explosives. As originally written, the bill would have granted employers immunity from civil suits if a teen was injured on the job. But that provision was dropped from the final version of the bill that Republican Governor Kim Reynolds promised to sign into law.

For Everson, the Iowa state NFIB director, none of this is concerning. A recent Des Moines Register editorial quoted Everson saying that the changes to Iowa’s child labor laws are a “common sense and a much-needed update to archaic youth employment laws...these bills will allow those who were not blessed with a trust fund to be able to work a few more hours a week to earn money.”

Working excessive hours and in hazardous conditions will endanger minors from all backgrounds. Well, maybe not trust-fund kids. But, as Reid Maki, director of child advocacy for the National Consumers League, told National Public Radio, “a lot of the kids we see working in exploitative situations tend to be from immigrant families and Latino.”

Spare the Job, Spoil the Child

Much like Everson, Riley, the Wall Street Journal columnist, argues that deregulating child labor laws would benefit not just business owners but also the children who would enter the labor force at a younger age and work longer hours. As he says, “a little work never hurt anyone, not even teenagers.”

Riley worries that the labor force participation rate for teenagers has been declining for decades. But that’s hardly alarming. Jennifer Sherer and Nina Mast, both economic policy analysts with the Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN), found that from 2001 to 2021 the share of 16- to 19-year-olds in the labor force did drop—by 22.4 percentage points. But the share of those teenagers who weren’t working because they were going to school increased by 21 percentage points. In a recent report, Sherer and Mast conclude that the decrease in teenage labor force participation is “almost entirely explained by the larger share of young people prioritizing education and training over work.”

That’s a good thing. In 2021 the (median) weekly earnings for workers with a college degree were $1,334 and the unemployment rate for the group was 3.5%. Those numbers for workers with no more than a high school degree were $809 a week and a 6.2% unemployment rate, and for workers without a high school diploma, $625 a week and an 8.3% unemployment rate.

For Riley, the fact that teen unemployment rates are considerably higher than those of adult workers, even in today’s tight labor market, is yet another reason to deregulate child labor. But teen unemployment rates have been far higher than adult unemployment in every year since 1948. And during the recovery from the pandemic recession, teen unemployment rates fell below double-digits for the first time since December 1956.

Consider this: In December 2000, at the end of the 10-year economic expansion of the 1990s, the teen (16- to 19-year-old) unemployment rate had fallen to 13.2%, which was still well above the overall unemployment rate (3.9%). But there were still more unemployed people looking for work than there were job openings (1.3 unemployed people per job opening) and there was no public outcry about the need to loosen child labor laws. Despite fewer unemployed people than job openings (just 0.65 per job opening) in March 2023, Riley and Everson are urgently demanding that we water down child labor laws.

Riley would have you believe that more work would reinvigorate today’s youth. But only asking whether work is “good for youth”is too simplistic. That’s the conclusion of sociologist Jeylan Mortimer’s 2011 study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. She found that high school students who worked less than 20 hours a week, whether steadily or for a few months, did better in school, were more likely to attend and graduate from a four-year college, and had jobs that afforded more learning opportunities than the students who worked more than 20 hours a week while in school. The students who worked fewer hours came from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. The students who worked longer hours, especially those who worked long hours sporadically, were less invested in school, and came from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds.

In addition, ​​Debbie Berkowitz, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, has found that children from low-income communities—which tend to be majority Black, Brown, and immigrant families—are often hired for jobs that involve menial, and sometimes physically demanding and dangerous, tasks that provide little in the way of actual transferrable professional skills.

Fixing a National Embarrassment

U.S. child labor laws are a national embarrassment. The United States remains the only member country of the United Nations not to have ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. And even before the current campaign to dilute them, Human Rights Watch found “that most U.S. states are noncompliant with international child rights standards.”Human Rights Watch gave the child labor laws of 20 U.S. states a grade of F, the child labor laws in another 26 states a D, and the child labor laws in the remaining four states a C. Not a single state received a grade above a C.

It is imperative that we enforce the child labor laws we do have. Despite the recent uptick in cases, the chance of getting caught violating child labor laws remains remote. Cutbacks in government programs since 1980 have left the DOL ill-equipped to enforce labor laws. In 1979, on the eve of the Reagan administration, the DOL employed 1,232 wage-and-hour inspectors, or one inspector for every 81,7170 workers. In 2019, the DOL employed just 782 wage-and-hour inspectors, or one inspector for every 189,878 workers.

And upping the penalties for violating child labor laws is also in order. The bill before Congress sponsored by Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) would do just that and require that repeat offenders serve jail time.

Ben Powell, a libertarian economist who opposes stricter child labor laws in the United States, surprisingly advocates for paying poor parents in the developing world to send their children to school. The same policy could work in the United States, whether through renewing the expanded child tax credits in the Biden stimulus package that dramatically reduced child poverty rates, or by pushing employers to pay parents a family wage (a family wage is sufficient for raising an entire family).

Jesse Case, secretary-treasurer and principal officer of the Teamsters Local 238 in Iowa, agrees. As reported in the Des Moines Register, he told the protesters gathered in the rotunda of the Iowa state house, “We don’t need more kids working in factories and packing plants. We need to pay higher wages for their parents, so the kids don’t have to work in factories and packing plants.”

is a professor of economics at Wheaton College and a member of the Dollars & Sense collective.

“Alone and exploited: Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.,”by Hannah Dreier, New York Times, Feb 25, 2023 (nytimes.com); Jennifer Sherer and Nina Mast, “Child labor laws under attack in states across the country,”Economic Policy Institute, March 14, 2023 (epi.org); “How Do U.S. States Measure Up,”Human Rights Watch, Sept. 13, 2022 (hrw.org): Jeylan  Mortimer, “The Benefits and Risks of Adolescent Employment,”National Institute of Health, Jan. 1, 2010 (nih.gov); Daniel Costa, “Threatening migrants and shortchanging workers,”Economic Policy Institute, Dec. 15, 2022 (epi.org); “Fact Sheet #14: Cover Under the Fair Standards Act (FLSA),”Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Department of Labor, revised July 2009 (dol.gov); “Education Pays, 2021,”Career Outlook,  U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2022 (bls.gov); “Child Labor in America: History Policy, and Legislative Issues,”Congressional Research Service, Nov. 18, 2013 (loc.gov); Tesnim Zekeria, “Deregulating child labor,”Popular Information, May 14, 2023 (popular.info); Federica Coco, Ella Hollowood, and Taylor Nicole Rogers, “U.S. child labour violations rise as business defy laws to fill roles,”Financial Times, Feb. 28, 2023 (ft.com); Adolfo Flores and Jennifer Calfas, “States Look to Ease Some Child-Labor Laws Amid Tight Market,”Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2023 (wsj.com); Katie Akin and Gruber-Miller, “‘Our kids are not for sale’: Unions protest proposed changes to Iowa child labor law,”Des Moines Register, Feb. 23, 2023 (desmoinesregister.com); The Editors, “Child Labor Overhaul creates new risks for teens without much new benefit,”Des Moines Register, March 5, 2023; Jason Lalljee, “Instead of paying adults more, some states might let companies hire kids as young as 14 to fill the labor shortage,”Insider, Feb. 13, 2023 (businessinsider.com); “Child Labor Bulletin 102,”Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Department of Labor, revised November 2016 (dol.gov).

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