states ‘irresponsible’ in loosening youth work rules, labor dept. says
Labor Department’s top attorney on Thursday condemned recent state moves to loosen child worker protections as “irresponsible” and making it easier to hire children for dangerous jobs.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a prominent Republican, signed a new law on Tuesday that exempts workers younger than 16 from age verification requirements. In Missouri, similar legislation is being debated, while legislators in Iowa are discussing allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to work in meatpacking plants and limiting businesses’ civil liability if such a worker gets ill, hurt, or dies during their job. Minnesota is mulling over a bill that would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to do construction work.
A labor solicitor, Seema Nanda, said in a statement that governments should “increase accountability and increase enforcement” of existing laws instead of making it easier to hire youths for dangerous work. It is unacceptable for children to work in dangerous workplaces in this country, period.”
Reports have emerged of children working in hazardous occupations around the country, and federal officials have pledged to crack down on violations of child labor laws.
The Labor Department has observed a 69 percent increase in minors employed in violation of federal law since 2018, Nanda said. A subcontractor to meatpacking plants, Packers Sanitation Services, was fined $1.5 million for illegally hiring children, some of whom were burned by caustic cleaning agents in February.
Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, there are regulations on the types of jobs minors can work and the hours they can be employed. Unfortunately, the Labor Department lacks sufficient inspectors to enforce these laws, so a lot of that burden is passed onto state governments. As Reid Maki, director of advocacy at the Child Labor Coalition, explains, states use age verification requirements to monitor how many minors are in the workforce and what jobs they are doing.
“It just seems to create a state of lawlessness,” he said.
The Arkansas governor’s spokeswoman, Alexa Henning, said Sanders believes age verification requirements are “obsolete” and place “arbitrary burdens” on parents.
According to Nanda, federal laws still apply in states that have loosened regulations.
In her view, no state has the authority to limit child labor protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Despite vigorous enforcement of child labor protections across the nation by the department, experts say federal officials lack resources to investigate child labor violations without the assistance of state governments.
“Child labor cases may well be the most labor-intensive cases of all,” said Judy Conti, government affairs director at the National Employment Law Project.
Even though companies are caught skirting the law, the penalties are minimal, according to David Weil, a professor of social policy and management at Brandeis University and a former Labor Department employee.
On Thursday, a senior Democratic lawmaker fired another broadside at employers looking to hire children.
A business that exploits children is in trouble, Sen. Richard Durbin (Ill.) said on the Senate floor. “The fact that American companies are turning to children to address our nation’s labor shortage is a national disgrace.”
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