The Absurd Republican Argument for Rolling Back Child Labor Laws

Last week, a law went into effect in Arkansas that allows 14- and 15-year-olds to work without a permit signed by their parents. Titled the “Youth Hiring Act of 2023,” it states that the purpose of removing the permit requirement is to “restore decision-making to parents concerning their children” and “streamline the hiring process for children under 16 years of age.”

Earlier this year, a spokeswoman for the state’s Republican governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, described the now defunct permit requirement as an “arbitrary burden on parents.” The Republican state representative Rebecca Burkes, a sponsor of the new law, said, “This is simply about eliminating the bureaucracy that is required and taking away the parent’s decision about whether their child can work.”

Come on.

There was nothing onerous about the old requirement: It involved a simple one-page form for parents and guardians to sign off on before younger teenagers went to work — a bare minimum of bureaucracy.

And: Wouldn’t parents have more of a decision-making role, not less, if their explicit permission were required before their 14- and 15-year-olds could work up to 48 hours a week, six days a week?

I thought “parents’ rights,” in the Republican framing, were supposed to be about keeping parents better informed about and more involved in what their children were learning about and doing. There are already carve-outs for children to work in certain circumstances, like family businesses, where, under federal law, “Children of any age are generally permitted to work for businesses entirely owned by their parents.” (Arkansas still says that for most other kinds of jobs, 14 is the minimum employment age.)

Local opponents of the law find the parents’ rights argument dubious, as Tess Vrbin reported in The Arkansas Advocate in March. She quoted Laura Kellams, the Northwest Arkansas director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, who argued that the permit is free and is processed quickly by the government. Vrbin’s report notes that Kellams isn’t against teenagers working, and that as a teenager she herself worked at a local chicken plant that has a history of violating child labor laws. “This is not red tape,” Kellams said of the permit requirement. “It’s a burden to companies who are illegally hiring minors beyond the allowable hours and in conditions that aren’t allowed.”

Arkansas isn’t the only state trying to chip away at child labor protections. In the past few years, Iowa, New Hampshire and New Jersey have enacted laws that roll back previous protections for child workers like extending allowable work hours and loosening restrictions on hazardous work, and several more states have introduced similar bills, according to analysis from the left-of-center Economic Policy Institute. Some of these laws, like Iowa’s, which allows 14- and 15-year-olds to work up to six hours a day during the school year, conflict with federal labor law.

According to Nina Mast, a state economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, the ultimate goal of the proponents of these state laws is to weaken federal child labor law. There is growing energy behind this movement, explained John Fliter, an associate professor of political science at Kansas State University and the author of “Child Labor in America: The Epic Legal Struggle to Protect Children.” He told me that when he started teaching constitutional law 30 years ago, child labor law was considered an area that had been fairly settled since 1941, when the Supreme Court upheld the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Though there were attempts to weaken child labor law after that, he says, they weren’t really mainstream for decades.

That started changing after the Great Recession, Fliter said. He gave the example of Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who, around the time he was first sworn in to the Senate in 2011, gave a speech in which he argued that it isn’t the role of the federal government to regulate child labor — that it should be left up to the states. In his book, Fliter notes that as a presidential candidate in 2012, the former House speaker Newt Gingrich “proposed a plan to allow poor children to work as janitors in schools” and called child labor laws “truly stupid.” Since then, political attacks on child labor laws have increased.

In addition to the parents’ rights angle, the contemporary arguments against child labor laws include the ideas that they prevent children from earning money their families need to survive, that it’s good for teenagers to develop a strong work ethic and that there’s a labor shortage. When Gov. Kim Reynolds, Republican of Iowa, signed her state’s rollback of child labor protections into law in May, she said: “In Iowa, we understand there is dignity in work and we pride ourselves on our strong work ethic. Instilling those values in the next generation and providing opportunities for young adults to earn and save to build a better life should be available.”

What was striking about reading Fliter’s book is that these arguments are similar to the arguments against regulating child labor that he cites from the early 20th century: Opponents of proposed laws in the era of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire disliked the expansion of federal power, he writes, and felt the “evils of child labor were greatly exaggerated” and that “it is good for kids to work.”

Don’t get me wrong: I believe in the value of hard work for teens, and in addition to the many exemptions, there are ample opportunities for kids to earn money babysitting or mowing lawns and other odd jobs even before they turn 14. Current laws already have enough flexibility to allow young people to discover the value of work; 14-year-olds don’t need to be doing “previously prohibited hazardous jobs in industrial laundries” to develop a work ethic. And they don’t need to be working so many hours a day that they can’t possibly keep up with schoolwork — which is supposed to be their primary occupation.

Which is almost surely why I’m not seeing a genuine groundswell of parental demand for loosening child labor laws. As the Economic Policy Institute notes, the push for these laws is coming from industry groups. And when you learn details about the uptick in violations of child labor law, the parents’ rights argument seems even flimsier — often the most vulnerable children who are compelled to work long hours are separated from their parents.

As Elora Mukherjee, a clinical professor of law at Columbia Law School, told me via email, “The children who are being exploited on a daily basis by meatpacking plants, in the construction industry, and working with toxic chemicals, for example, need all the protections possible. Frequently, these are children without parents who can meaningfully protect them. This is particularly true of immigrant children who come to the United States without a parent or primary caregiver.”

In February, my newsroom colleague Hannah Dreier interviewed over 100 migrant children in 20 states, many from Central America. She found:

According to Catherine Fisk, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and a faculty director for the Berkeley Center for Law and Work, these violations are possible because so “much labor, especially in low wage labor, is provided through a network or a chain of contractors.” That was the case in the tragic death of Duvan Tomas Perez, a 16-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who was killed in July “after becoming ensnared in a machine he was cleaning at the Mar-Jac Poultry processing plant in Hattiesburg, Miss.,” according to reporting by my newsroom colleague Chang Che. This is exactly the kind of dangerous work that minors shouldn’t be doing, and two Labor Department divisions are now investigating the plant. The company said it relied on staffing companies to hire because of a tight labor market.

I imagine it’s easier for companies to maintain a degree of plausible deniability about their hiring practices if a state no longer requires a parent’s signature for a younger teenager to work. And there are ways to address labor shortages beyond hollowing out child labor laws — meaningful, bipartisan immigration reform and higher wages, just off the top of my head. But if opening the door to 14- and 15-year-olds to work without parental permission, or in potentially dangerous jobs, perhaps for lower wages, at the detriment of their educational prospects, is seen as the only solution, that’s the mark of a society moving backward.

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