Child Labor Laws Are Changing Because Teens Are Cheaper Than Adults

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
A teen cashier wearing a mask while working in the supermarket

Chances are you’ve seen more “Help Wanted” signs in the last few months than you have in the last few years. Chances are those positions haven’t been filled. Across the country, companies are experiencing an unprecedented labor shortage. There are a few reasons behind the shortage, but by and large, folks are no longer willing to work for less than a living wage often in jobs that put them in danger during an ongoing pandemic. (Because yes, we’re still in the pandemic.) Rather than respond to workers’ concerns, some states are looking to fix the problem by weakening child labor laws.

Stated another way—since adults are unwilling to be exploited, some states have decided to just start exploiting children.

If your first reaction is outrage, you’re not alone. “The notion that we would be solving some economic turmoil by allowing the expansion of child labor hours, is at best, ridiculous, and at worst, very detrimental to young people,” Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, told The Guardian

What States Are Making Changes To Child Labor Laws?

Senators in Ohio recently introduced a bill that would permit kids younger than 16 years old to work as late as 9 p.m. with a parent’s permission. The current rule allows children to work until 7 p.m.

A Wisconsin bill took things a step further. SB332 not only seeks to expand the hours a minor younger than 16 years old can work, but it also allows businesses to hire 14- and 15-year olds to begin work at 6 a.m. and work as late until 11 p.m. on weekends.

Activists worry that other states could follow suit. In an interview with The Guardian, Stephanie Bloomingdale, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, which opposes SB332, raised concerns that “[t]he passage of this bill would be a slippery slope for eliminating child labor practices in Wisconsin and in the United States in general.”

Child Labor Laws Were Meant To Protect Children

Child Labor Laws were “designed to protect the educational opportunities of youth and prohibit their employment in jobs that are detrimental to their health and safety,” according to the Department of Labor.

Laws like the ones in Ohio and Wisconsin seem to have forgotten that.

Proponents of the bill in Wisconsin—including Republicans lawmakers and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association—supported the bill which weakens child labor laws on the grounds that it would help small businesses that are experiencing hiring and staffing issues. Nowhere in their argument did they include why changing the labor laws would benefit children. Nowhere did they address why the protections for children were no longer necessary. In fact, children’s well-being seems to have been ignored entirely.

The Problem With Longer Working Hours

There’s real scientific data that suggests working long hours while also going to school has a negative impact on teenagers.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found “very strong evidence” that working more than twenty hours a week during the school year was linked to “poor academic and behavioral outcomes” in a way that working fewer hours was not.

Kathryn Monahan, a UW researcher who led the study, also expressed concerns about sleep. She worried that teenagers who work longer hours, who get home later on a school night, will still have homework to finish, will still want to chat with friends and spend time doing the things teenagers do to unwind. That means later bedtimes. Because school isn’t starting later, that’s a recipe for sleep deficits.

More alarmingly than all of that is research that shows that children who enter the labor market at younger ages suffer a variety of negative consequences, including increasing rates of substance abuse and dropping out of school.

Teenagers Shouldn’t Have To Bear The Burden

To be clear, no one is arguing that teenagers should be barred from working. No one’s arguing that teenagers these days have no work ethic. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Teenage employment skyrocketed during the summer of 2021. It rose to the highest level it’s been since 2008. For the first time, the unemployment rate among 16- to 19-year olds was less than that of 20- to 24-year olds.

But teenagers should not be required to fill the holes left in the workforce. If industries are struggling to hire, lawmakers need to look at why—and address that, rather than circumvent the problem.

I’m no stranger to working as a teenager. The moment I was legally allowed to work, I did. First, as a hostess at Applebee’s, then as a receptionist at a golf course, as a camp counselor, a waitress, a sales associate at the mall. Since the moment I was allowed to work, I worked the maximum hours permitted. (Oldest child growing up in a single parent household.)

At every job, in each of those industries, child labor laws limited the number of hours I was permitted to work. No matter how busy the restaurant or sales floor was, when I hit my time limit, my shift ended. Maybe my boss was frustrated by the limitation. Maybe the teenage version of me would have rather earned an extra few dollars. None of that mattered. The laws were clear and specific.

They protected my childhood, to ensure my priorities remained on school rather than a minimum wage job.

As they should. Because teenagers should not be the backbone of the workforce.

Especially because of a labor shortage created by a systemic failure to protect the workforce.

Even in a pandemic.

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