As some states attack child labor protections, other states are strengthening standards
Amid increasing child labor violations and ongoing attempts to roll back protections for child labor in states across the country, bills to strengthen protections in multiple states and at the federal level are a welcome and long-overdue development. State lawmakers have especially important roles to play in addressing the urgent need to protect youth workers in dangerous jobs like agriculture, meatpacking, and construction.
In the past two years, seven states have introduced bills to strengthen child labor protections and four have enacted them
In the past two years, seven states have introduced bills to strengthen protections for child labor and four have enacted them (Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, and California). In June 2023, Colorado enacted a law that allows a family to sue the employer of a child who was injured at work while employed in violation of the law. In September, Illinois passed a law mandating that child influencers and children who appear in their parents’ monetized digital content must be fairly compensated—the first of its kind in the nation. And in October, California’s governor signed into law a measure that will teach high school students about their workplace rights and right to join a union—also the first of its kind. Earlier this year, Arkansas passed a harmful bill eliminating youth work permits, which informed families of a child’s rights at work and provided documentation that can be used to aid compliance with the law. A week later—following a slew of negative press attention and alarm raised by child welfare advocates—Arkansas lawmakers passed a bill to increase penalties for child labor violations, though without adding any new enforcement funding or capacity.
Most of the state-level bills introduced to strengthen child labor protections deal with enforcement: increasing civil monetary or criminal penalties, establishing enhanced penalties for repeat and willful violations, or allowing victims to sue for damages. A smaller set of bills are related to work hours or protections for certain industries. In addition to Illinois, a Pennsylvania state lawmaker has proposed a bill to protect child influencers. And in Virginia, a bill to ban child labor in tobacco was introduced in 2022 but was not reintroduced in 2023 (see Table 1). Federal law does not prohibit youth under 18 from handling or harvesting tobacco despite the well-known risks of nicotine poisoning, pesticide exposure, and heat-related illnesses, which are particularly acute for youth.
Multiple bills have also been introduced at the federal level, including proposals to increase penalties for child labor violations, bar repeat violators from receiving federal contracts, and increase the age for farm work, among other proposals.1 However, federal bills face a difficult path to enactment in a divided Congress.
In the past two years, seven states have introduced bills to strengthen protections for child labor, and four have enacted them
|SB 390||Increases penalties for child labor violations||Enacted||2023|
|AB 800||Educates high school students about workplace and union rights||Enacted||2023|
|HB 1196||Allows injured victims of illegal child labor to sue for damages||Enacted||2023|
|HB 4932||Eliminates waiver for night work among 16-17 year-olds; increases criminal penalties; allows victims to sue for damages; adds retaliation protections||Introduced||2023|
|HB 1258||Reduces hours per week but removes limit of 8 hours per day for minors under 16||Introduced||2023|
|SB 1782||Requires parents to set aside earnings for children featured in monetized social media videos, allows child to take legal action if not properly compensated||Enacted||2023|
|HB 876||Bans child labor on tobacco farms||Introduced||2022|
|HB 1354||Increases criminal penalties for first and repeat violations||Passed House||2023|
|HB 1714||Increases criminal penalties, but requires reporting on violations and enforcement to ICE and HHS||Introduced||2023|
|Memo||Protects child influencers and children featured in their parent/guardian’s content||Seeking co-sponsors||2023|
Source: EPI analysis of state bills and legislation.
Federal bills offer guidance for states to strengthen child labor protections
Because of exemptions in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)—the federal labor law that governs wage and hour standards and youth employment—children can work in agriculture at younger ages, for longer hours, and in more hazardous conditions than in non-agricultural work. These FLSA exemptions are deadly—more children die in agriculture than in any other industry. Between 2003 and 2016, more than half of the 452 work-related fatalities among children were in agriculture, even though the industry employs a very small share of youth workers.
States can choose to enact stronger child labor standards in agriculture than the FLSA but few have done so. No U.S. state complies with the minimum standards set forth in Article 2 of the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which sets minimum ages for employment and hazardous employment in agriculture, and the U.S. has not ratified the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention on which this principle is based. Furthermore, while the United States has ratified the ILO Convention on eliminating the worst forms of child labor, it remains out of full compliance with the Convention because of persistent agriculture exemptions and its failure to update hazardous occupation orders.
Numerous federal proposals to strengthen child labor protections have been introduced, and lawmakers can adapt these provisions at the state level. For example, the recently reintroduced Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety (CARE) Act would raise the age to work in agriculture from 12 to 14, raise the minimum age for hazardous work from 16 to 18, and restrict the number of hours 14- and 15-year-olds can work (in line with FLSA child labor standards in non-agricultural employment). The bill would also increase civil monetary and criminal penalties for child labor violations and provide children with protection from pesticide exposure. Meanwhile, the Children Harmed in Life-Threatening or Dangerous (CHILD) Labor Act of 2023 would increase civil and criminal penalties for child labor violations, expand the U.S. Department of Labor’s authority, increase requirements of federal contractors and their subcontractors, hold suppliers and subcontractors jointly liable for violations, and allow victims of child labor to sue their employer for damages.
At minimum, states that lack standards in certain areas or have child labor standards that are weaker than those in the FLSA should raise standards to align with the FLSA. This is important both to improve employer compliance by preventing confusion over conflicting state and federal standards, and to ensure state enforcement agencies are equipped to act when FLSA standards are violated (in the absence of state standards, such enforcement can be handled only by the federal Department of Labor).
State lawmakers should adopt other changes to help deter exploitation of children, such as raising the minimum wage to $17 an hour, which would benefit over 10 million young workers and raise the floor for 21.5 million adult low-wage workers whose wages and employment are undercut by low-wage child labor. State policymakers should also eliminate youth subminimum wages, which incentivize employers to hire youth at exceptionally low pay rates and then fire them when they reach adulthood.
Overall, the bills introduced so far in seven states show that there is appetite for strengthening child labor protections and that state lawmakers can achieve progress when called to act. While these bills address a variety of different issues related to child labor, they represent basic changes that would drastically improve protections for young workers that every state should adopt.
1. Federal bills to address child labor introduced in the 2023-2024 Congress include: H.R. 2388, H.R. 2956, H.R. 4020, H.R. 6079 / S. 3163, H.R. 7345, S. 637, S. 3139, and S.3142.
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