US Lawmakers Seek to Fill Labor Shortage with Children

    30 May 2023

    A report from a policy group in Washington, D.C., says lawmakers in at least 10 states have proposed easing child labor laws over the last two years.

    The bills would make it easier for children under 18 to work longer hours during school days and in more kinds of jobs.

    The Economic Policy Institute in Washington released the report in March.

    Christopher Au, 19, dishes out ice cream at a J.P. Licks in Boston's Beacon Hill neighborhood on Thrusday, May 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Steve LeBlanc)
    Christopher Au, 19, dishes out ice cream at a J.P. Licks in Boston's Beacon Hill neighborhood on Thrusday, May 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Steve LeBlanc)

    The report said some bills propose permitting children to work in places that serve alcohol and in industries such as building.

    Lawmakers supporting the new bills say children could fill a labor shortage partly caused by the pandemic. They also say a job can provide teenagers with valuable work experience. Some say the government should not prevent a child from working if they have parental permission.

    The Arkansas legislature passed a bill this year removing a requirement that 14 and 15-year-olds get work permits. The permits had required children to get parental permission, proof of age, and an employer signature. Without work permits, it can be harder for companies to know whether they are employing a child. Arkansas state lawmakers separately passed legislation that increases fines for violating child labor laws.

    Under federal law, children's work hours are limited, and they are not permitted to work in dangerous conditions.

    One proposal in Minnesota permits 16- and 17-year-old children to work in and around building areas. A bill in Ohio that passed the state senate permits children to work on school days until 9 p.m. Under current law, children can only work until 7 p.m. on school nights.

    Allison Paxson is a child and education policy expert with Children's Defense Fund Ohio. The Defense Fund is a nonprofit group that aims to help children by supporting education and fighting abuse and poverty.

    Paxson told VOA the bill in Ohio and ones in other states are a way for businesses to deal with, what she called, the labor gap by employing children at lower wages. She said children in the U.S. can be paid less than the federal minimum wage for adults.

    Speaking after the passage of the bill in the Ohio Senate, State Senator Tim Schaffer said: "Thirteen states currently allow youth under the age of 16 to work until 9:00 p.m. year-round, earning a good wage and learning valuable employment skills."

    But Paxson argued that more time working takes away from time at school. The value young people can get "from workplace experience should not be the basis for unraveling their workplace protections, because this comes at the expense of their educations and their futures in both the short-term and in the long-term," Paxson said.

    A study published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence found that teenagers who work long hours in after-school jobs are more at risk of dropping out of high school.

    "Excessive work hours can lead to declining school," Paxson said.

    Child labor a common practice around the world

    The U.S. federal government has labor laws meant to protect children. For example, federal law states that 14 and 15-year-olds cannot work more than three hours a day after school. But in many parts of the world, child labor remains very common.

    A 2019 OECD study said that 152 million children were in child labor. In many countries, child labor is important to the economy.

    The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of International Labor Affairs keeps a list of about 160 products in 78 countries that are produced using child labor. In Brazil, for example, there is evidence that children who are five- to 13-years old grow bananas. In Vietnam, children as young as seven help produce products like rubber, leather and coffee.

    Poverty often leads many families to depend on child labor, or push children to take dangerous jobs, the OECD study said. Education, however, is the main alternative to labor for children.

    Public education "of good quality is essential as an alternative to child labor and for breaking the poverty cycle."

    I'm Dan Novak.

    Dan Novak wrote this story for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    gap –n. something that appears to be a mismatch in the numbers, percentages or rates related to one group compared to another group

    allow –v. to permit; to let happen

    unravel — v. to come apart

    expense n. a cost

    alternative –n. another choice; another possibility that something might happen

    essential adj. very basic to something

    cycle — n. a set of events that happen repeatedly