When we think of child labor in the U.S., we tend to picture century-old archival photos of young children toiling in mines, factories, and tobacco fields. While it’s comforting to imagine that those days are behind us, child labor — dangerous work involving kids under the age of 17 — has never really gone away and is, in fact, making a big comeback in the U.S. The Department of Labor reported that the number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws is dramatically on the rise, with a 37% jump last year alone. And while child labor violations are increasing, so are state-by-state efforts to weaken child labor laws, some of which have been on the books since the New Deal.

In recent years, at least 14 states have introduced legislation designed to weaken child labor laws — and some of those states have succeeded. As of June 2023, four states had officially rolled back laws designed to keep kids safe in the workplace. These rollbacks of longstanding protections for kids have been framed as “pro-family” — that the laws give parents more power to allow their kids to work earlier outside of the home as a character-building experience, and as cold economic pragmatism. We’re in a labor shortage, that argument goes, and the “red tape” around youth employment is a barrier to growing the economy.

But experts in youth employment and child labor question both those notions and are deeply concerned by the legislative reversals. Young people have always been allowed to work — why weaken the workplace protections that allow them to do so as safely as possible?

And the rollbacks have come alongside a flood of reports about new child labor violations. This month alone, Chipotle locations in Washington, D.C., and Sonic restaurants in South Carolina, were fined for hundreds of child labor violations, involving everything from hiring underage workers to scheduling employees under the age of 18 to work illegally long and late hours. Earlier this year, a New York Times investigation found that minors — many of them migrant children — were routinely working late-night shifts in Grand Rapids, Michigan, packaging popular cereals and snack foods, prompting a Department of Labor investigation. In February, the DOL fined one of the country’s biggest food safety services providers $1.5 million for employing at least 102 children to work overnight shifts at 13 meat-processing facilities in eight states. According to the DOL investigation, children between the ages of 13 and 17 were “working with hazardous chemicals and cleaning meat processing equipment including back saws, brisket saws and head splitters.”

Illinois General Assembly Representative Dagmara Avelar with activists protesting alleged child-labor violations at the Hearthside Foods packaging facility.

Nina Mast, an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, has been following the push to break down child labor protections.

“This is part of a much larger agenda of privatization and deregulation of our public institutions,” says Mast. “When you have youth potentially foregoing higher education, future earnings, and the ability to earn higher wages in our economy, their wages are depressed over their entire lifetime. That’s bad for the macro economy. It’s bad for adults… When youth are taking these jobs at low wages, it really pushes adults out of the labor market. Why would an employer hire an adult at $15 an hour, if they can pay a young person $10?”

Nina Mast went long with Fatherly on child labor, the laws that are sweeping the nation, why it’s a myth that paid work is good for kids, and why the child labor crisis isn’t new — it’s just been simmering under the surface.

How is child labor defined?

When we say “child labor,” we’re talking about youth employment, particularly for youth 17 and younger. But when we [as experts] talk about child labor, we’re really focused on the more hazardous, exploitative jobs that may be harmful to youth well-being — roofing and demolition, meatpacking plants, or other factory-type labor. We’re also talking about the employment of youth in jobs where they’re illegally employed or are in an exploitative relationship with an employer.

So there’s a difference between child labor and, say, a 15-year-old working after school at a grocery store?

I think that people are still grappling with what terms to use… In the past, “child labor” described hazardous work environments — in mining and all of these really terrible jobs that we, more or less, outlawed for youth.

But there are many jobs that youth do that can become dangerous or hazardous — or can become excessive even if they’re not obviously dangerous. You may think working at a fast food restaurant is more or less neutral, but we see a lot of issues in fast food, particularly around the use of hazardous equipment that young people are not supposed to be using. We see a lot of wage theft. We see youth working longer hours than they’re supposed to. Any job has the ability to become a hazardous environment for a variety of reasons.

What about kids who work in agriculture?

The National Labor Relations Act established the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set labor standards in this country during the New Deal era. The NLRA explicitly excluded agricultural workers, domestic workers, tipped workers, and independent contractors — types of employment that we now see as very exploited occupations in our economy.

There’s a racist and gendered origin behind those exclusions. I mean, these are jobs that were primarily done by Black women, Black men, and people of color across the economy. Agriculture is a particularly Hispanic and Latino occupation. These exclusions are embedded within the structure of our economy, and reforms are certainly overdue. It harms everyone who works in agriculture, but it’s particularly dangerous for young people. Although agriculture is a relatively small share of employment for young people, it accounts for over half of fatalities that occur in child work.

Even 10-year-olds can work in agriculture if they have parental consent, and the farm is not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Why are we seeing such a big surge in child labor right now?

COVID-19 really exacerbated economic insecurity for people all over the world, not just in the U.S. That’s coupled with a severely broken immigration system. People are stuck in a backlog of processing their asylum claims for years without work authorization.

You have an increase of unaccompanied migrant youth showing up at the border, and being processed, and sent to sponsors where there’s not a lot of accountability around what happens to those youth. Those kids are highly exploitable because of their economic situation. They’re forced to work — they may have debts to pay off or they come here with nothing.

And then you have this sort of longer, broader right-wing agenda that I mentioned, which has really latched on to child labor in what they call the “current labor shortage” — they see it as a way to address this so-called labor shortage. Instead of raising wages in this more competitive economy, employers would simply rather pay less. By employing youth, they’re able to do that.

“Why now” is a difficult question to answer, but I think it’s a lot of different pieces coming together. Expanding Republican control in many states provides more fertile ground for these laws to get passed more easily. That’s what we’ve seen in Iowa, Arkansas. The states that passed these bills have complete Republican control, so despite significant opposition to this legislation, opponents are simply unable to stop these bills from passing.

Well, is there a labor shortage?

The “labor shortage,” I think, is more of a convenient shorthand and an excuse to weaken the floor for child labor protections. We are in a relatively tight labor market. And when the labor market is tight, employers have to raise wages to be competitive, and to retain and recruit employees. Employers want to break that connection. They don’t want to abide by that reality. Lowering wages is the answer that they’ve sought, and it’s worked to some extent.

“Instead of raising wages in this more competitive economy, employers would simply rather pay less. By employing youth, they’re able to do that.”

The other narrative we see is that work is good for young people — that we need to get more young people into the labor market because the labor force participation of young people is too low. But actually, we’re not seeing young people looking for jobs who can’t find them.

And your research has shown that kids who work under these conditions actually have a harder time holding down employment in the future. That really breaks the myth that putting kids to work is purely character-building, that it teaches them to be responsible and save money, and so on. Is it ever appropriate for a kid to work?

We don’t have a problem with young people working. There are jobs that are perfectly safe and age-appropriate for young people… and there can be benefits to work for young people, whether that’s financial independence or other things. We’re not advocating for youth employment to be completely eradicated. What we’re advocating for is strong standards in place to protect youth from hazardous or excessive work.

How does child labor harm kids?

When children work more than 20 hours per week, once you cross that threshold, there are a lot of harmful consequences for young people, particularly around student achievement, educational outcomes, and behavioral issues.

They’re less likely to graduate from high school, which can lead to lower lifetime earnings and higher rates of unemployment. Young people are more likely to be injured on the job. They’re more likely to have their wages stolen by their employer. They’re more likely to be exposed to hazards that have longer-term harm on young people because of the way their bodies are developing. There are a host of issues with excessive or hazardous child labor that the laws are meant to protect children from. Despite that, we’re seeing an attempt to weaken laws that protect children from these types of environments.

Beyond these particular state laws, there’s a larger effort to weaken and eventually abolish federal standards governing child labor. There’s a much larger agenda here, and it’s not confined to child labor specifically.

What is that agenda?

The groups behind these bills are the same groups attempting to expand private school vouchers, attack public education through attacks on teachers’ unions, and attack the right to teach a certain curriculum. These same groups are attacking our public benefits programs like SNAP and Medicaid, making it more difficult for families to access those programs by implementing work requirements. This is part of a much larger agenda of privatization and deregulation of our public institutions.

The arguments used to justify these rollbacks are not backed by evidence. The other argument is that weakening child labor laws restores decision-making rights to parents. We’re not really seeing parents come out in support of these bills. What we’re seeing is industry lobbyists, Republican policymakers, and conservative think tanks in alliance with each other.

How do these child labor violations affect the larger economy?

When you have youth who are potentially foregoing higher education, or other types of training, to take low-wage jobs with no path to advancement, they’re foregoing future earnings and the ability to earn higher wages in our economy. Their wages are depressed over their entire lifetime. That’s bad for the macro economy. It’s bad for our employment situation in general, as well as rates of unemployment.

“We’re not really seeing parents come out in support of these bills.”

And it’s bad for adults, too. I mean, when youth are taking these jobs at low wages, it really pushes adults out of the labor market. Why would an employer hire an adult at $15 an hour, if they can pay a young person $10? It really affects everyone in the economy, not just children.

So what’s good for young people in the workforce is good for everyone in the workforce?

Yeah, absolutely. The recommendations we provide to address the crisis of child labor are the same recommendations that serve adults in the economy, too. We need to raise the minimum wage and increase labor standards enforcement through the Department of Labor. Wage theft, overtime protections — these issues affect adults too. We’re all working in the same economy. When you weaken the floor to allow children into the labor market in excessive or hazardous work, they’re weakening the floor for everyone.

Where is there the biggest push to roll back child labor laws across the country?

Arkansas Act 195 eliminated the age verification and parent or guardian permission requirements, so young people can now be employed without their parents being informed of their child’s rights in the workplace. It eliminates the paper trail that allows enforcement agencies to investigate cases of child labor potential violations. Georgia also proposed eliminating this work certificate requirement.

The Iowa law lifts restrictions on hazardous work in multiple industries. It allows employers to hire teens as young as 14 for previously prohibited hazardous jobs in laundries, and as young as 15 in light assembly work. It also allows the agencies to waive restrictions on hazardous work and for a long list of other hazardous occupations that were previously prohibited and are prohibited under federal law. It also allows restaurants to have teens as young as 16 serve alcohol, and it limits the state’s ability to impose penalties on employer violations.

There’s a bill in Missouri that has made it pretty far through the state legislature that will extend work hours for young people. There’s a bill we’re following in Ohio that also would extend work hours.

A lot of [these proposed bills] have to do with extending hours, allowing teens to work longer hours, or allowing younger teens to work more hours than they previously were allowed to work. Or they expand hazardous occupation work — lowering the age to work in some hazardous occupations, including a lot of changes around the service of alcohol.

What can parents and regular people do? Some of these violations involve products that fall right into the center of family life, that we’re using all the time.

Call their legislators to improve labor standards by raising the minimum wage, support the Protect the Right to Organize Act, support labor unions, and efforts to strengthen our labor standards enforcement.

Parents can also reach out to each other and educate each other about these issues. Because what we’re seeing a lot in the media is an outlet that will use one parent who’s excited that their teen can work till 9 p.m. at the movie theater as a justification that parents support this. Parents should speak out about how this doesn’t serve them or their families, and how the use of parents’ rights is really a weaponization of the parents and to advance these larger conservative agenda items.