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What are Child Labor Laws?

Child labor laws protect children from unsafe working conditions. The structure they provide enables teens to gain valuable job experience in a safe environment.

Child labor and the Industrial Revolution

During the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s and early 1900s, factory conditions were terrible. Many of the workers were children. They were forced to work long hours with dangerous machinery, in freezing or overheated environments.

Fair Labor Standards Act

As early as 1832, concerned adults protested inhumane working conditions for children. However, it was not until 1904 that the National Child Labor Committee began a national campaign to address safety concerns for child workers. In 1938, after several failed attempts, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. Although the act addressed labor standards in general, it contained the first federal regulations of employment age and work standards for children.

Complying with federal child labor laws

The current legal standards for child labor make a distinction between agricultural and non-agricultural employment. This is because most companies conduct business during regular business hours, but farm work is an around-the-clock operation.

Hazardous and non-hazardous employment

The law also differentiates between hazardous and non-hazardous employment. Jobs involving dangerous machinery or conditions must follow stricter standards. The below lists 17 prohibited jobs and equipment for young people under age 18.

Jobs and Equipment Prohibited for Children Age 17 and Younger

  • Excavation
  • Coal mining
  • Roofing
  • Logging and sawmilling
  • Wrecking, demolition, or ship-breaking
  • Driving or being an outside helper on a motor vehicle
  • Meat packing or processing
  • Radioactive or ionizing radiation exposure
  • Manufacturing brick, tile, or related products
  • Explosives manufacturing and storage
  • Power-driven hoisting equipment
  • Power-driven metal-forming, punching, or shearing machinery
  • Power-driven circular or band saws, or guillotine shears
  • Power-driven paper products machinery
  • Power-driven bakery machinery
  • Power-driven woodworking machinery

Minimum age requirements for non-agricultural employment

Children must be age 14 or older to work in non-hazardous employment. There are some exceptions to this rule. Children 13 and under may deliver newspapers or babysit. They may work for parents in a family business, except for manufacturing or hazardous jobs. They may also perform in radio, theater, motion pictures or television productions. Hazardous employment is limited to adults age 18 or older.

Minimum age requirements for agricultural employment

Age limits are a little different for children employed in an agricultural setting. Children age 16 and older may participate in hazardous farm work. There are three age limit categories for children who are employed in non-hazardous agricultural work.

  • Children age 10 - 11 may work on farms that are not covered by minimum age requirements, provided they have their parents’ permission
  • Children age 12 - 13 may work on a farm with parental consent
  • There are no restrictions on non-hazardous employment for children age 14 - 15

Maximum hours of employment for children under age 16

Children who work on farms cannot be required to work during school hours. This does not apply during the summer months or when school is not in session.

Children who work in non-agricultural jobs are subject to the same school restrictions. They are also limited to three hours per day on school days, with an 18 hour per week maximum when school is in session. When school is out, these hours are increased to eight hours per day or 40 per week.

Furthermore, there are seasonal restrictions on working hours for children in non-agricultural employment. From Labor Day through May 31, they may only work from 7 am – 7 pm. From June 1 through Labor Day, they may work from 7 am to 9 pm.

Paying young workers

Most agricultural employers do not have to pay federal minimum wage. However, for farms that are subject to federal minimum wage standards must comply with federal or youth minimum wage requirements. Agricultural employers are not required to pay overtime rates.

Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour as of 2009. After 40 hours per week, employers must pay overtime, which is 1.5 times regular pay. These standards apply to child workers in non-agricultural employment unless they are eligible for Youth Minimum Wage.

Youth Minimum Wage regulations

During the first consecutive 90 days of employment, employers may pay workers under age 20 at the Youth Minimum Wage rate. It is currently $4.25 per hour. This gives young workers a competitive edge for minimum wage jobs. In 2013, only 55 percent of young people age 16 - 24 were employed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates the number will drop below half by 2022. Since current employer trends emphasize job experience over college major, a teenager’s first job is more important than ever.

In a competitive job market, Youth Minimum Wage can give young workers the edge they need to land their first job. However, employers are prohibited from firing current employees just to hire a worker eligible for the reduced rate.

Complying with state child labor laws

States may have their own labor laws in addition to federal regulations. Whenever the two conflict, the stricter standard overrides the permissive one. For example, federal Maximum Hours regulations allow children in agricultural jobs to work any time except during school hours. In Kansas, children working for employers not subject to FLSA are limited to the hours of 7 am – 10 pm when school is in session. A Kansas child performing farm work would be limited to these hours during the school year.

Work permits or age certificates

States may require work permits or age certificates for working children. This holds employers responsible for meeting state and federal employment standards. You can get forms from your school guidance counselor or your state’s Department of Labor.

Filing a child labor complaint

Child labor violations are enforceable under FSLA statutes. The statute of limitations is two years for most infractions; it is extended to three years for willful violations. Contact the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the US Department of Labor to file a confidential complaint.

Investigation procedure

Complaints may trigger an investigation. However, the WHD routinely investigates low-wage employers. If a business is under investigation, it is not necessarily an indication of child labor violations. A WHD inspector will examine records and time cards to determine whether the business is subject to FSLA regulations. If it is, the inspector determines which, if any, standards are being violated.

Civil fines for child labor violations

WHD representatives are authorized to collect back wages and impose civil fines for labor violations. Back wages are paid to employees who were shorted pay. As of 2016, fines are indexed for inflation and increase each year. The fines are broken into three tiers; numbers given reflect 2017 data.

  1. Child labor violations carry a maximum penalty of $12,278.
  2. Child labor violations that cause the serious injury or death of a minor carry a maximum penalty of $58,808.
  3. Repeated or willful child labor violations that cause the serious injury or death of a minor carry a maximum penalty of $111,616.

If you have questions about child labor compliance, ask an Expert. They can provide advice and recommendations based on verified credentials and years of experience. Both employers and employees can learn about the rights and requirements for complying with state and federal laws.

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