MADISON, Wis. -- Lawmakers in several states are embracing legislation to let children work in more hazardous occupations, for more hours on school nights and in expanded roles, including serving alcohol in bars and restaurants as young as 14.
The efforts to significantly roll back labor rules are largely led by Republican lawmakers to address worker shortages and, in some cases, run afoul of federal regulations.
Child welfare advocates worry the measures represent a coordinated push to scale back hard-won protections for minors.
"The consequences are potentially disastrous," said Reid Maki, director of the Child Labor Coalition, which advocates against exploitative labor policies. "You can't balance a perceived labor shortage on the backs of teen workers."
Lawmakers proposed loosening child labor laws in at least 10 states over the past two years, according to a report published in March by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. Some bills became law, while others were withdrawn or vetoed.
Legislators in Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa are actively considering relaxing child labor laws to address worker shortages, which are driving up wages and contributing to inflation. Employers have struggled to fill open positions after a spike in retirements, deaths and illnesses from covid-19, decreases in legal immigration and other factors.
The job market is one of the tightest since World War II, with the unemployment rate at 3.4% -- the lowest in 54 years.
Bringing more children into the labor market is, of course, not the only way to solve the problem. Economists point to several other strategies the country can employ to alleviate the labor crunch without asking kids to work more hours or in dangerous settings.
The most obvious is allowing more legal immigration, which is politically divisive but has been a cornerstone of the country's ability to grow for years in the face of an aging population.
The Ohio Legislature is on track to pass a bill allowing students ages 14 and 15 to work until 9 p.m. during the school year with their parents' permission. That's later than federal law allows, so a companion measure asks the U.S. Congress to amend its own laws.
Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, students that age can only work until 7 p.m. during the school year. Congress passed the law in 1938 to stop children from being exposed to dangerous conditions and abusive practices in mines, factories, farms and street trades.
Republican Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law in March eliminating permits that required employers to verify a child's age and a parent's consent. Without work permit requirements, companies caught violating child labor laws can more easily claim ignorance.
Sanders later signed separate legislation raising civil penalties and creating criminal penalties for violating child labor laws, but advocates worry that eliminating the permit requirement makes it significantly more difficult to investigate violations.
The conservative Opportunity Solutions Project and its parent organization, Florida-based think tank Foundation for Government Accountability, helped lawmakers in Arkansas and Missouri draft bills to roll back child labor protections, The Washington Post reported. The groups, and allied lawmakers, often say their efforts are about expanding parental rights and giving teenagers more work experience.
"There's no reason why anyone should have to get the government's permission to get a job," Republican Arkansas Rep. Rebecca Burkes, who sponsored the bill to eliminate child work permits, said on the House floor. "This is simply about eliminating the bureaucracy that is required and taking away the parent's decision about whether their child can work."
Margaret Wurth, a children's rights researcher with Human Rights Watch, a member of the Child Labor Coalition, described bills like the one passed in Arkansas as "attempts to undermine safe and important workplace protections and to reduce workers' power."