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State Lawmakers Are Quietly Rolling Back Child Labor Protections

In January alone, eight states introduced or took new action on rolling back child labor protections.

Betty Escobar (left) and other fast food workers protest at a Popeyes Louisiana Chicken restaurant in Oakland, California, on May 18, 2023.

This story was originally published at Prism.

Ryan Scanlan dreads any passage of Indiana’s House Bill 1093. The new bill would remove provisions that protected children between 14 and 17 years old who work year-round. For some students in the high school English teacher’s class at North Central High School in Indianapolis, some of those provisions safeguarded them from working more than nine hours in a day and between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“If I already have high school seniors who are already working until 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock at night, then there are no protections for them with these new policies,” Scalan said. “And then these new laws might make things even worse for me as a teacher.”

In January alone, eight states introduced or took new action on rolling back child labor protections by eliminating work hour time limits and minimum age restrictions. In response, advocacy groups and policy analysts are prioritizing civic engagement around an underreported pervasive issue that intersects with other public health issues. The challenge lies in cutting through the noise during election season now that 28 states have quietly introduced bills to weaken protections since 2021.

In response to situations like Scanlan’s where child labor issues creep into public education, a new Campaign to End U.S. Child Labor emphasizes how issues surrounding minor workers are not discrete from other issues that Americans will consider during the elections. The campaign launched on Feb. 20 with a shared agenda written and signed by nonprofit organizations, trade unions, and academic institutions that work in the fields of child labor and exploitation. Recommendations include wage increases, protection of immigration statuses, and children’s right to an attorney and access to general assistance programs.

“If your children are working, you can’t actually achieve education for all, you will never have the health outcomes that you want, you will forever have a large segment of your population living in poverty, and you will continue to have malnutrition,” said Anjali Kochar, the executive director of the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to eradicating child exploitation and advocating for the protection of children in national and international policies. “This is a cyclical problem. Child labor is not this thing that stands alone. It is so interconnected with so many issues in any country.”

In its announcement, the Campaign to End U.S. Child Labor cites recent alarms from the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which reported an 88% increase in the number of children employed in violation of child labor laws since 2019. On Oct. 19, 2023, the division’s 740 inspectors were working on more than 800 child labor investigations.

“We have less than 800 inspectors for 11 million workplaces. How is that possible?” Kochar asked. “But these violations have been going on. We just haven’t known about it because enforcement has really stepped up in the last several years.”

Many of the state-level rollbacks coincide with immigration restrictions in states like Florida, which have historically relied on migrant workers and undocumented families to source labor. According to Thomas Kennedy, an organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition and a child of undocumented Argentine parents, the state currently looks to minor workers as a response to a worker shortage exacerbated by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial changes to immigration laws that are affecting the state’s demographics. Most recently, Florida lawmakers have been working to pass House Bill 49, which would allow employers to schedule 16- and 17-year-olds for unlimited hours and eliminate their meal and rest breaks.

“[DeSantis’ immigration policies] created a push factor for migrants to leave the state, so we see Florida farmworker towns become ghost towns,” Kennedy said. “A lot of seasonal agricultural workers that come for specific parts of the harvest process are just avoiding the state … You’re starting to see some of that develop in Florida, and what was their answer? They said, ‘Let’s put teenagers to work.’”

For policy analysts, activating the American public around child labor legislation reversals comes with bringing attention to the language that bills use to seem like protections. Dustin Pugel, a policy director at Kentucky Center for Economic Policy (KCEP), points to the rapid passage of the state’s House Bill 255, which went through the state’s House of Representatives on Feb. 22, as an example of when co-opted language tricks the public into thinking that such rollbacks are positive. According to Pugel, whose work lies in “digging into these bills, understanding what the implications are, and then being able to put that in plain language for lawmakers, media, and general audiences,” HB 255 would repeal state-specific restrictions on employment for children between 14 and 18 years old and allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work all night and during school hours — all without the state’s population fully understanding these ramifications.

“This bill takes some of the language that was in our regulations, which it eliminates, and puts it back into the statute,” he said. “So it seems as though there are some protections, but it leaves out quite a few … For example, in our current regulations, 14- and 15-year-olds can’t operate a mower or a cutter for landscaping, but the sponsor owns a landscaping company, so he left that language out of this new bill.”

KCEP also raises awareness around some of the biggest groups that push for reversals, including the Foundation for Government Accountability. Founded and based in Naples, Florida, the conservative public policy think tank is behind some of the current reversals of child labor legislation across the country, including in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Florida.

Recent bills cite state-wide worker shortages as reasons to reverse existing provisions around child labor. Various advocates challenge this framing, such as Jessica Heldman, an associate professor in child’s rights at the University of San Diego’s School of Law. The University of San Diego’s Children’s Advocacy Institute also signed onto the Campaign to End U.S. Child Labor.

“Everything that I have looked at indicates, clear as day, that it is the most vulnerable children who are being exploited, and these include children of low-income families and children who are coming into this country,” she said. “When children come from other countries, they may need to support their sponsors that are housing them and may not have the funds to actually care for them. There’s pressure on those children to earn money … They [may also] have the desire or obligation to support their families back home.”

Heading into the elections, the fight against child labor rollbacks is also an exercise in teaching the public how child labor affects other parts of their livelihoods. Groups like the Florida Immigrant Coalition say there are more appropriate and actionable solutions to worker shortages.

“One thing that could be done is expediting work permits for adults who are seeking asylum in this country and coming here to work,” Kennedy said. “And then holistically speaking, wages just need to be better. We need to increase wages, we need to enact better labor protections, we need to make sure people have a union and that they can actually make a living off of [their jobs].”

As for tangible, actionable steps that Americans can take, Pugel emphasizes the democratic power that one has on a state level, especially in smaller states like Kentucky, West Virginia, and Iowa. There is power in demanding increased wages and immigration protections to keep the target off unaccompanied minors and children securing a future in America.

“State representatives are elected by only a few thousand votes, which means that constituent concerns really do make a much bigger difference at the state level than at the federal level,” he said. “I always recommend that folks reach out to their legislator because even just a dozen or so complaints about a particular policy really can turn a vote, regardless of party affiliation. It really does make a huge difference.”

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