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Child Labor Laws: What Employers Need to Know

Sandra Novatko SHRM-CP
by Sandra Novatko SHRM-CP on April 18, 2024

Many businesses welcome eager young workers throughout the year. Whether it's for holiday seasons, after-school hours, or ongoing positions, ensuring compliance with child labor laws is crucial. As an employer, it is vital that management familiarizes themselves with federal and state regulations to make informed decisions about employing minors.

What Are Child Labor Laws?

Governed primarily by the Department of Labor's Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and state labor laws, child labor laws form a crucial framework for protecting the rights, health, and education of minors in the workforce. These laws categorize minors into two main groups: 14- to 15-year-olds and 16- to 17-year-olds. Each group has specific restrictions regarding the type of work that the minors can perform and the number of hours that they can work.

Additionally, the Department of Labor restricts minors from working in hazardous occupations, which include operating power-driven devices and roofing operations. For the full list of Hazardous Occupation Orders, click here.

When Were Child Labor Laws Introduced?

The introduction of child labor laws in the United States traces back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period marked by rapid industrialization, urbanization, and social reform movements. Prior to the implementation of child labor legislation, children as young as six years old were often employed in factories, mines, mills, and other hazardous workplaces.

The early efforts to regulate child labor emerged at the state level, with individual states enacting their own laws. Among the pioneering states was Massachusetts, which passed the first set of state child labor laws. The law passed in 1836 required factory children under 15 to go to school for a minimum of three months per year. Other states soon followed suit, with varying degrees of effectiveness and enforcement.

In 1916, Congress passed the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, which limited children's working hours and prohibited the interstate sale of goods produced by child labor. The Supreme Court ultimately struck down the bill as unconstitutional. In 1941, the Supreme Court reversed its earlier ruling and recognized Congress' power to regulate child labor. The child labor provisions were included in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which Congress created in 1938.

Since its enactment, the FLSA has undergone several amendments and updates. It has also had to adapt to changing economic and social conditions. Revisions include minimum wage rates, revisions to exemption criteria, and compliance concerns to provide better child labor protection. Today, child labor laws continue to evolve in response to emerging challenges and opportunities in the modern workforce.

Is Your State Loosening Laws on Child Labor?

Recently, there has been a noticeable trend in various states loosening child labor laws throughout the US. This shift in policy has sparked debate among policymakers, employers, educators, and advocates about its potential impact on young workers and the broader economy. Let's take a closer look at this trend and what it means for employers and minors alike.

The decision to loosen child labor laws stems from a variety of factors, including labor shortages, economic pressures, and changing attitudes toward youth employment. One of the biggest reasons is increased labor shortages in certain industries. Because of this, employers are increasingly looking to younger workers to fill vacant positions. Proponents also argue that easing restrictions on youth can provide valuable opportunities for minors. It can help them gain early work experience, develop essential skills, and allows them to contribute to their communities.

Since 2023, four states have enacted updated minor restrictions, and another eight states have introduced legislation for similar changes. Newfound laws have moved towards allowing minors as young as 14 to work in positions that were previously deemed unsafe, allowing minors to serve alcohol, eliminating work permits, and allowing additional hours. For more information on your state laws, visit your state Department of Labor’s website.

While there are clear benefits to loosening child labor laws, it is essential to strike a balance between promoting youth employment and ensuring their health and safety. Policymakers, employers, and advocates must work together to develop and implement regulations that protect the rights and well-being of minors. By working together to promote responsible employment practices, employers can create a healthier and more inclusive labor environment for all.

What Are the Penalties?

Ensuring a safe and fair workplace for young workers is essential for employers. While it is critical to know and understand labor laws, understanding the consequences of not following these laws is just as important.

Child labor laws are in place to prevent exploitation and ensure that young workers can balance their employment with education and personal development. Child labor law violations can have serious implications for employers from fines to legal action. By gaining insight into these consequences, employers can make informed decisions and prioritize the safety and well-being of young workers.

You may be asking, what happens if a company violates child labor laws? Let's look at what can happen to an employer who does not follow the laws set forth. As states implement changes, the Department of Labor has stated it wants to “appropriately and consistently utilize its full authority in every child labor law enforcement action.” In November 2023, the Department of Labor increased the maximum penalty for each violation rather than for each child, as it had previously done.

One violation can cost an employer $15,138 in cases where there is no injury or where there is only a minor injury. For example, if an employer had two violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) rules prohibiting work in a hazardous occupation and one violation of the FLSA recordkeeping requirements, the employer would be assessed three separate civil money penalties, each of which can reach $15,138 – for a potential total of $45,414 for a single child.

What Steps Should You Take Prior to Hiring a Minor?

Hiring minors can be a valuable opportunity for employers to bring in enthusiastic and eager workers, but it also comes with unique responsibilities. Before bringing a minor into the workforce, employers must take several steps to ensure compliance with child labor laws:

  • Understand Legal Requirements: Employers should familiarize themselves with federal and state labor laws.
  • Obtain Work Permits: Employers should confirm if the minor is required to obtain work permits such as employment certificates or age certificates.
  • Verify Age and Eligibility: Employers should verify the age and eligibility of minors before hiring them.
  • Provide Clear Job and Schedule Expectations: Employers should clearly communicate job duties and schedule expectations around breaks, lunches, and maximum hours per week.
  • Maintain Accurate Records: Employers should maintain accurate records of minor employees' hours worked, job duties performed, and any required permits or documentation.

In summary, hiring minors requires careful attention to legal requirements, safety considerations, and support mechanisms. By taking proactive steps to ensure compliance with child labor laws and provide a positive and nurturing work environment, employers can create valuable opportunities for young workers to learn, grow, and succeed in the workforce.

At FrankCrum, our mission is to help businesses become the best they can be. To learn more about our comprehensive services, contact us today.

Sandra Novatko SHRM-CP
Sandra Novatko SHRM-CP

Sandra Novatko is an HR Consultant with Frank Crum PEO. Sandra holds a Master of Arts Degree in Adult Education from the University of South Florida and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Human Resources Management. Sandra holds her SHRM-CP certification and has over ten years’ experience in Human Resources. In her career, Sandra has been a champion for employee engagement, and has worked with organizations on mitigating unions in the workplace. In her current role with Frank Crum, she provides best practice advice on employee relations, employment regulations, and wage and hour topics.