Republicans in some states want to relax child labor laws to fill jobs


Boys folding boxes for Rowntrees Nux Chocolates in the packing department, Rowntree factory, York. Yorkshire, 1940. (Photo by Borthwick Institute/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
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  • Republicans in some states are proposing exceptions to child labor regulations.
  • That’s because labor shortages have impacted industries like meatpacking and construction.
  • Research shows that these industries could attract adult workers if they increased wages and benefits.

The children are doing well – and depending on who you ask, they will do well with physical work.

Lawmakers in Iowa and Minnesota last month passed legislation proposing exemptions from their respective states’ child labor regulations, as the ongoing labor shortages hit them particularly hard. Minnesota has lost 90,000 workers during the pandemic alone, according to state demographers, making it one of the tightest job markets in the country. Iowa isn’t far behind, with around 75,000 job openings in December.

That means lawmakers in those two states are returning to a practice common during labor shortages, economists told The Wall Street Journal’s Jacob Bogage last week: hiring younger workers to fill vacancies.

“Unfortunately, due to the high demand for workers where there are gaps in the system, child laborers can become implicated in filling some of those gaps,” David Weil, a former wages and hours administrator at the Labor Department, told The Post.

The laws target the number of hours children are allowed to work and protect employers from liability due to illness or accident. In the latter case, these employer protections align with the dangerous industries the bills seek to shore up: construction in Minnesota and meatpacking in Iowa. The bills come as efforts to extend the legal working age in other states have increased recently and the US has seen an increase in child labor violations since 2015.

The pandemic-era workforce shortage, which appears to be permanent, isn’t helping as many companies have come under fire for breaches in recent years. And employers have learned that they cannot rely on older workers delaying retirement to fill the workforce gap.

State Senator Rich Draheim, lead author of the Minesota law, told Insider that hiring youth employees is a valuable experience for the teens involved and that companies often cannot afford to pay employees more.

“When young people are no longer able to find work opportunities because of their age, it becomes even more difficult for companies to find reliable employees,” he said. “Companies are teaching these youth workers skills that will prepare them for their future and maybe even attract them to their industry for life.”

Debbie Berkowitz, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, told The Post that it’s mostly children from low-income families who are hired when labor regulations are relaxed, and that the “experience” they gain from those jobs, it doesn’t matter.

“Many child labor jobs are menial jobs and these skills are not transferable,” she said.

“We need immediate help”

It’s not just in Iowa and Minnesota; The GOP-led Wisconsin Senate recently passed legislation to extend legal work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds, although the state’s governor vetoed it this month. Ohio reinstated a similar law this month that would allow extended hours for those age groups with parental permission.

The Minnesota bill would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to do construction work. For the meatpacking industry in Iowa, it would be 14- and 15-year-olds.

Iowa’s law was more detailed than Minnesota’s, listing prohibited workplaces for children under the age of 18, such as meatpacking, slaughterhouses, demolition work, and roofing work. However, it also allows exceptions as long as young people between the ages of 14 and 17 are “enrolled in work-based learning or a school- or employer-administered work-related programme”.

It also requires employers requesting exemptions to demonstrate that children receive “appropriate supervision and education” in addition to safety precautions, and that the work does not interfere with a child’s education.

The proposed laws circumvent the child labor requirements set out in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The law, signed into law by former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, bans all minors from working with powered meat processing machinery and roofs except for “16- and 17-year-olds, who are actual students, learners, and trainees.”

The meatpacking industry in Iowa, in particular, has been hit hard by COVID — and the House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis found last year that factories across the country were exposing tens of thousands of workers to high-risk conditions early in the pandemic.

Many people are quitting their jobs at the plants in 2020 and they are still struggling to attract workers.

“We need immediate help,” Karl Jones, the owner of Jones Farm Market in Michigan, told ABC News last year. “It’s an aging workforce in this industry. Many of my long-time employees are in their 60s and will soon be retiring. It’s a dying business in a way. But it’s a business we desperately need.”

Research shows these workers aren’t totally averse to meatpacking work — they’re just not willing to do it for current wage standards.

A study of 1,000 respondents last year, led by Washington State University’s Jeff Luckstead, Texas A&M University’s Rodolfo M. Nayga Jr., and Arvest Bank’s Heather Snell, looked at how exposure to COVID-19 and the Pay versus unemployment benefits affected workers’ likelihood of taking on meatpacking jobs.

In general, Luckstead and his team found that people were willing to take these jobs for more money, and not even much more than the average butcher and packer wage, as well as “aggressive” joining bonuses and health insurance benefits.

“The results suggest that higher wages, together with additional fringe benefits, would have expanded the labor supply,” the study says.

But now Republican lawmakers are starting to turn their attention to teenagers.

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