Several Republican-controlled states are currently considering weakening child labor laws, including a bill in Arkansas that would allow children as young as 14 to work without first obtaining permission.
The moves come as national outrage unfolds over the increasing use of child labor to work dangerous jobs in the country and the Biden administration vows a crackdown on the problem.
Last week, state legislators in Arkansas passed a bill that would eliminate a requirement for kids under the age of 16 to obtain a permit in order to work. Currently, companies in Arkansas that want to employ 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds are required to obtain a permit showing proof of age, have written permission from a parent or guardian, and provide a description of the work and the work schedule. The bill, “The Youth Hiring Act of 2023,” would weaken the state’s oversight of child labor laws by eliminating the need for a permit altogether.
"There is no reason that anyone should have to get the government's permission to get a job," bill sponsor Sen. Clint Penzo said last week, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The bill’s purpose is to “restore decision-making to parents concerning their children," and "streamline the hiring process for children under 16 years of age,” according to the legislation. (It’s worth noting that Arkansas has banned parents from making some healthcare decisions in the interest of their children.)
Other Republican-led states are currently considering legislation to change child labor laws too, including Iowa and Ohio. Iowa’s bill would allow minors as young as 15 to serve alcohol and allow 14-year-olds to work in industrial freezers and meat coolers. Ohio’s bill would allow minors to work year-round until 9 p.m.
The Arkansas Senate, which is controlled by Republicans along with the state House and governor’s mansion, passed the bill 24-9 Thursday; the state House passed the bill last month by a similarly comfortable margin.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the onetime press secretary for former President Donald Trump who was elected to the governorship last year, indicated last week that she would sign the bill.
“The governor believes protecting kids is most important but doing so with arbitrary burdens on parents to get permission from the government for their child to get a job is burdensome and obsolete,” a spokesperson told the Democrat-Gazette. “All child labor laws will still apply, and we expect businesses to comply just as they are required to do now.”
Arkansas, Ohio, and Iowa’s attempts to cut regulations is happening alongside a massive uptick in child labor over the past several years, as well as increased scrutiny after several high-profile cases. The federal government fined a sanitation company privately owned by Blackstone last month for employing more than a hundred minors to clean slaughterhouses; 10 of those children were working at Tyson Foods and George’s Inc. plants in Arkansas, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
And after a New York Times investigation alleged that migrant child labor runs rampant throughout the supply chains of many of the most recognizable U.S. brands, the Biden administration said last week it would more aggressively investigate child labor and called for Congressional action to increase penalties on companies that violate child labor laws.
Since 2018, illegal employment of children has increased 69 percent, the Department of Labor said in February.
In Arkansas, just three Republicans joined the chamber’s six Democrats to oppose the bill. Republican Sen. Mark Johnson, one of three Republicans, called a work permit “one more little safeguard that maybe we should leave in place.”
“I encourage 14- and 15-year-olds to have initiative and seek employment,” Johnson told the Arkansas Advocate, a local nonprofit news outlet. “I certainly think the parents need to know about it.”
Even the leader of the top business lobbying group in the state said he opposed the bill.
“We just think this is a solution looking for a problem,” Randy Zook, the CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, told Arkansas Business last week.
"The primary thing kids that age need to be focused on is graduating from high school," Zook told Arkansas Business. "We are afraid this will encourage kids who are under 16 to pursue more work time than school time.”