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Republicans in Some States Want to Ease Child Labor Laws to Fill Jobs

  • Republicans in some states are proposing exceptions to child labor regulations. 
  • That’s because the labor shortage has impacted industries like meatpacking and construction. 
  • Research shows that those industries could attract adult workers if they increased pay and benefits. 

The kids are alright — and depending on who you ask, they’ll be just fine doing manual labor. 

Lawmakers in Iowa and Minnesota have introduced legislation in the last month proposing exceptions to child labor regulations in their respective states, due to the persisting labor shortage hitting them particularly hard. Minnesota lost 90,000 workers alone during the pandemic, according to state demographers, making it one of the tightest labor markets in the country. Iowa’s not far behind with roughly 75,000 open jobs in December.

Which 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 open roles. 

“Because of the high demand for workers, where there are holes in the system, unfortunately child laborers can get caught up in staffing some of those holes,” David Weil, a former wage and hour administrator at the Department of Labor, told The Post. 

The laws take aim at the number of hours that children are allowed to work and protect employers from liabilities due to sickness or accidents. In the case of the latter, those employer protections dovetail with the kind of dangerous industries the bills are looking to prop up: construction in Minnesota, and meatpacking plants in Iowa. The bills come as efforts to expand legal working ages in other states have ramped up recently, and as the US has seen an increase in child labor violations since 2015. 

The pandemic-era labor shortage, which looks to be a permanent one, isn’t helping, with many businesses coming under fire for violations in recent years. And employers have learned that they can’t rely on older workers to stave off retirement to fill the worker gap. 

State Senator Rich Draheim, chief author of the Minesota bill, told Insider that hiring youth employees is valuable experience for the teenagers involved, and that businesses often can’t afford to pay employees more. 

“Eliminating work opportunities for youth just because of their age will make it even harder for businesses to find reliable employees,” he said. “Businesses teach 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 loosened, and that the “experience” they get from those jobs is negligible. 

“A lot of the child labor jobs are menial jobs and those skills aren’t transferrable,” she said.

“We need immediate help”

It’s not just in Iowa and Minnesota; the GOP-led Senate in Wisconsin recently passed a bill to expand legal working hours for 14 and 15-year-olds, although it was vetoed this month by the state’s governor. Ohio reintroduced a similar bill this month that would allow expanded hours for those ages with a parent’s permission. 

Minnesota’s bill seeks to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to perform construction work. For Iowa’s meatpacking industry, it would be 14- and 15-year-olds. 

The Iowa bill was more detailed than Minnesota’s, and outlines a list of prohibited job sites for children under the age of 18, such as meatpacking, slaughterhouses, demolition work, and roofing operations. It also, however, allows for exemptions, as long as teens between the ages of 14 and 17 are “participating in work-based learning or a school or employer-administered, work-related program.” 

Additionally, it requires that employers seeking exceptions must prove that children will receive “adequate supervision and training,” in addition to safety precautions, and a stipulation that work will not interfere with a child’s education. 

The proposed laws skirt around the child labor requirements outlined by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The law, signed into law by former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, prohibits all minors from working with power-driven meat processing machines and roofing, with the exception being for “16- and 17-year-olds who are bona-fide student-learners and apprentices.”

Iowa’s meatpacking industry in particular took a massive COVID hit — and the House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis found last year that plants around the country exposed tens of thousands of workers to high-risk conditions early in the pandemic. 

Many people quit their jobs at the plants in 2020, and they are having trouble attracting workers still. 

“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. A lot of my longtime guys are in their 60s, and they’ll be retiring soon. It’s kind of a dying business in a way. But it’s a business we desperately need.”

Research shows that these workers aren’t averse to meatpacking work entirely — they’re just not willing to do it for the current wage standard. 

One study of 1,000 respondents last year, led by Jeff Luckstead of Washington State University, Rodolfo M. Nayga Jr. of Texas A&M University and Heather Snell of Arvest Bank, looked at how COVID-19 exposure and pay in comparison to unemployment benefits influenced workers’ likelihood of taking on meatpacking work. 

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

“The results indicate that higher wages along with additional non-wage benefits would have expanded the labor supply,” the study said.  

But for now, Republican legislators are starting to turn to teenagers. 

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