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Getting Ahead: Child labor laws

Posted May 24, 2023 8:41 AM
By Patricia Jones, Alliance Community Task Force: Creating Opportunity

Last week I wrote about abuses of migrant children who are forced to work long hours and nights in dangerous jobs throughout the United States. Many teenagers are now looking for summer jobs, so let’s look at what the child labor laws, which should be protecting them, actually contain.

Child Labor Laws were established by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938. Child labor provisions under FLSA are designed to protect the educational opportunities of youth and prohibit their employment in jobs that are detrimental to their health and safety. FLSA restricts the hours that youth under 16 years of age can work and lists hazardous occupations too dangerous for young workers to perform until at least age 18.

All states have child labor laws and compulsory school attendance laws, and establish the minimum ages and conditions under which youths may operate motor vehicles. Minor employees in most cases are entitled to receive the same minimum wage, overtime, occupational safety and health, and non-discrimination protections as adult workers.

What do these Child Labor Laws say? Let’s start with hours children may work.

Federal hour restrictions apply to any business that engages in interstate commerce – that is, they buy or sell across state lines. Federal rules say not more than three hours on a school day; not more than 18 hours in a school week; not more than 8 hours on a non-school day; not more than 40 hours in a non-school week; and not before 7 a.m. nor after 7 p.m. (9 p.m. from June 1 through Labor Day).

Our state child labor laws are less restrictive and only apply to small, local businesses. From the Nebraska Department of Labor: Youth 14 and 15 years of age shall not be permitted to work more than eight hours a day, 48 hours a week, before the hour of 6 a.m. or after the hour of 10 p.m. The Nebraska Department of Labor is authorized to issue a special work permit to allow the employment of 14 and 15-year-old youth before 6 a.m. or after 10 p.m. provided there is no school scheduled the following day and after an inspection of the working conditions at the business premises. The special permit, available from the office of the Superintendent of Schools, may be issued for periods not to exceed 90 days and may be renewed. The fee for each special permit or renewal shall be $10. Special permits cannot be issued if the business falls under Federal Law.

There is no training wage under current state law. All ages must be paid at least the minimum wage of $10.50 an hour. Those who are doing tipped work may be paid $2.13 an hour, but if tips do not bring the wage to $10.50, the business must pay the difference.

Children cannot use any hazardous equipment until they are at least 18. This includes working in factories, restaurant kitchens, or construction jobs. They cannot work in jobs where “their health may be injured or their morals depraved.”

In agriculture, the laws are much less restrictive. A child of any age may be employed by his or her parent or guardian at any time in any occupation on their farm. Employees of farms or ranches are subject to FLSA’s child labor provisions if they are engaged in interstate commerce or produce goods for interstate commerce and their annual gross sales are more than $500,000. The minimum age for employment on farms or ranches is 14, but 14-15 year-olds can only work when school is not in session, cannot use any machinery, cannot handle chemicals, and cannot work in storage bins. At age 16 minors may perform any farm job, including agricultural occupations declared hazardous by the Secretary of Labor, at any time, including during school hours. However, agriculture is where we see the most young-worker injuries and fatalities.

In the future we will look at the history of child labor and why Congress, almost 100 years ago, decided it was necessary to put these restrictions in place.