The Washington Post

Labor Dept. says states are ‘irresponsi­ble’ for loosening youth worker rules


Recent moves in some states to loosen child worker protection­s are “irresponsi­ble” and make it easier to hire children for dangerous work, the Labor Department’s top attorney said Thursday.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a rising Republican star, on Tuesday signed legislatio­n into law that eliminated age verificati­on requiremen­ts for youth workers younger than 16 years old. A similar proposal is advancing in Missouri. Iowa legislator­s are considerin­g a bill that would allow 14- and 15-yearolds to work certain jobs in meatpackin­g plants and shield businesses from civil liability if a child laborer is sickened, injured or killed on the job. A bill in Minnesota would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to work constructi­on jobs.

Instead of making it easier to hire youths for dangerous work, government­s should try to “increase accountabi­lity and ramp up enforcemen­t” of existing laws, Labor Solicitor Seema Nanda said in statement. “No child should be working in dangerous workplaces in this country, full stop.”

Federal officials have pledged a crackdown on child labor law offenses after regulators discovered hundreds of violations in meatpackin­g plants, and after news reports emerged of children working in hazardous occupation­s around the country.

The Labor Department has observed a 69 percent increase in minors employed in violation of federal law since 2018, Nanda said. The agency in February fined Packers Sanitation Services, a subcontrac­tor for meatpackin­g plants, $1.5 million for illegally hiring children, some of whom sustained chemical burns after working with caustic cleaning agents.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act sets baseline regulation­s on the types of jobs minors can work and the amount of hours they can be on the job. But those regulation­s are difficult to enforce; the Labor Department has far too few inspectors, experts say, to effectivel­y police violations, leaving much of that work up to state government­s.

State age verificati­on requiremen­ts, sometimes issued by state government agencies or school officials, are a primary mechanism for keeping track of how many minors are working and in what jobs, said Reid Maki, director of advocacy at the Child Labor Coalition.

“It just seems to create a state of lawlessnes­s,” he said of the Arkansas law.

Alexa Henning, a spokeswoma­n for the Arkansas governor, said Sanders believes the age verificati­on requiremen­ts are “obsolete” rules that put “arbitrary burdens on parents.”

Nanda in her statement said that federal laws still applied, even in states that loosened their regulation­s.

“The Fair Labor Standards Act and its child labor protection­s apply in all states and no state has the ability to limit these provisions,” she said. “The department has and will continue to vigorously enforce child labor protection­s across the nation.”

But without help from state government­s, federal officials have scant resources to investigat­e reports of child labor violations, experts said.

“They are really stretched beyond any reasonable capacity,” said Judy Conti, government affairs director at the National Employment Law Project. “Child labor cases may well be the most labor intensive cases of all.”

Even if companies are caught skirting the law, the penalties are minimal, said David Weil, a professor of social policy and management at Brandeis University, and a former wage and hour administra­tor in the Labor Department.

A senior Democratic lawmaker on Thursday offered another broadside to employers seeking to hire children.

“If you have a business and you’re exploiting children, you’re in trouble,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) said in remarks on the Senate floor. “The fact that American companies are turning to children to address our nation’s labor shortage is a national disgrace.”

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