Both violations of child labor laws and state legislative proposals to roll back child labor protections are on the rise across the country, according to a comprehensive new Economic Policy Institute report on child labor standards. The number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws has increased 37% in the last year and skyrocketed 283% since 2015. Meanwhile, at least 10 states have introduced or passed laws rolling back child labor protections in the past two years (Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin).
The report comes as recent high-profile investigations have uncovered child labor violations across the country, including at Packers Sanitation Services, Inc., which illegally employed over 100 children between the ages of 13 and 17 in hazardous occupations at meatpacking facilities. These children worked illegally on overnight shifts cleaning razor-sharp saws and other high-risk equipment, and at least three suffered injuries. Recent Department of Labor cases and media reports have also made clear that unaccompanied migrant youth left in limbo by a broken U.S. immigration system have become particularly vulnerable to exploitation by employers.
“Child labor laws are under attack in states across the country, just as violations of these standards are rising. The trend reflects a coordinated multi-industry push to expand employer access to low-wage labor, with the end goal of rewriting federal child labor laws and other worker protections for the whole country. Children of families in poverty, and especially Black, brown, and immigrant youth, stand to suffer the most harm from such changes,” said Jennifer Sherer, senior state policy coordinator for EPI’s Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN) Worker Power Project.
Already in 2023, eight bills to weaken child labor protections have been introduced in six Midwestern states (Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota) and in Arkansas, where a bill repealing restrictions on work for 14- and 15-year-olds was signed into law just last week. Iowa’s proposed bill has generated national headlines for being particularly extreme: The bill proposes lifting restrictions on hazardous work to allow children as young as 14 to work in meat coolers and industrial laundries, teens as young as 15 to work on assembly lines, and 16- and 17-year-olds to serve alcohol, among a long list of changes.
The primary proponents of these laws are business groups and their state affiliates, particularly the National Federation of Independent Business, the Chamber of Commerce, and the National Restaurant Association. Hotel, lodging, and tourism associations, grocery industry associations, home builders, and Americans for Prosperity—a billionaire-funded right-wing dark money group—have also supported bills in various states.
Industry lobbyists have attempted to justify the changes to child labor laws by citing the decline in the labor force participation rate among 16- to 24-year-olds over the last two decades. However, the report shows that these declines are due to a larger share of young adults being in school to obtain more skills and education, a positive trend—for both individuals and the economy—that should not be slowed or reversed.
The report concludes with policy recommendations for lawmakers at both the federal and state levels. Congress should increase penalties for child labor violations and address chronic underfunding of agencies that enforce labor standards, eliminate occupational carve-outs that allow for weaker standards in agricultural employment, pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, and implement immigration reforms that curb the exploitation of unauthorized immigrants and unaccompanied migrant youth. At the state level, lawmakers should eliminate subminimum wages for youth and raise the minimum wage, eliminate the two-tiered system that fails to protect children from hazardous or excessive work in agriculture, strengthen labor standards enforcement, and empower young people to build and strengthen unions.
“Instead of competing in a race to the bottom on child labor standards, states must strengthen child labor laws amid a rising number of violations,” said Nina Mast, state economic analyst for EPI’s Economic Analysis and Research Network. “In particular, states should eliminate significant gaps and exclusions in existing child labor laws, boost protections beyond the minimum standards mandated by federal law, and improve job quality for workers of all ages.”