Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Tina Casey headshot

Child Labor in the USA: What Employers Need to Know

Earning money with an after-school or summer job is a critical rite of passage for many children in the U.S., but illegal child labor in dangerous jobs is on the rise — and many states are loosening restrictions around employing kids under 18. Before hiring a child, businesses should take a close look at both the ethical and legal landscapes.
By Tina Casey
child labor in the early 20th century - little girl working in a mill

A "little spinner" photographed at a mill in Newberry, South Carolina, in 1908. (Image: U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons) 

A growing number of U.S. state legislatures are responding to labor shortages by relaxing the laws around child labor. That can be a relief for employers in job markets where immigration crackdowns and other factors have squeezed the pool of adult labor. Before hiring a child, though, businesses should take a close look at both the ethical and legal landscapes.

Education and child labor

Earning money with an after-school or summer job is a critical rite of passage for many children in the U.S. After-school and summer jobs can foster responsibility, teamwork, creativity, communication, independence, financial management and other life skills, and they often serve as a stepping stone to opportunities after high school.

However, students need to finish their K-12 education in order to advance in life, whether that means going on to a job, a trade school or an advanced degree. Work doesn’t necessarily impinge on that priority, but it easily can, especially for children who are already vulnerable due to their socioeconomic position or immigration status. 

Exploitive child labor is a matter of national policy that can ripple throughout supply chains here in the U.S. as well as overseas. It concerns all businesses, whether or not they employ school-age workers. 

Exploitive child labor also feeds into structural injustice. It closes the door on accumulating generational wealth and robs the national economy of potential talent, watering down the next generation of entrepreneurs, managers, professionals, researchers, academics and other education-dependent positions. Skilled trades can also lose potential workers who suffer injury or health impacts while still in school.

Child labor and federal law

Federal child labor laws come under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). As the U.S. Department of Labor explains, the FLSA is not intended to prevent work altogether. It is intended to prevent injury and loss of educational opportunity.

The FLSA generally prohibits employing children under the age of 14, but there are many exceptions. Also with exceptions, the law limits the hours minors under age 16 can work, and it sets specific standards for teenagers within certain jobs. Jobs classified as hazardous, such as operating power equipment, are generally off limits altogether for those under age 18.

Employers can find general guidance on federal child labor laws from the U.S. Department of Labor, which also provides overviews and updates on specific jobs. A link to state laws is included on the agency’s YouthRules! website for students, parents and employers.

The bad old days of child labor are still here

Children and laborers of all ages worked under horrific conditions in the U.S. before the FSLA was enacted, as recounted by the small business resource website WorkforceHub, a project of the human resources firm Swipeclock.

“In the cotton mills, children were often employed overnight for shifts of 12 hours a day. Cold water was thrown in their faces to keep them awake at night and accidents were common on the job,” the company notes.

Hazards can still occur today when children are employed illegally. Recent reports of children ages 13 to 17 working overnight shifts at a meatpacking plant have raised new concerns over enforcement of both state and federal child labor laws. Similar concerns have been raised over indications that unaccompanied immigrant minors are vulnerable to exploitation.

In February, the Labor Department issued a report that advocated for stiffer penalties. The agency cited a 69 percent increase in illegal child employment over the past five years.

“The maximum civil monetary penalty under current law for a child labor violation is $15,138 per child. That’s not high enough to be a deterrent for major profitable companies,” the Labor Department concluded.

In another study published in March, Jennifer Sherer and Nina Mast of the Economic Policy Institute also made the case for stronger laws. They took note of a decline in youth workforce participation over the past 20 years, indicating that more young people are continuing their education “in order to increase their long-term employability and earnings.”

“Putting off work in order to obtain more skills and education is a positive trend — for both individuals and the economy — not one that should be slowed or reversed,” Sherer and Mast argued.

States are responding to illegal child labor, but not in a good way

Despite evidence that illegal child labor is on the rise, almost a dozen states have passed legislation or introduced bills that loosen the laws, making enforcement all the more difficult.

Some of the new laws appear to be consistent with the FSLA health and safety standards. For example, New Jersey recently extended the permissible hours for teens to work during vacations and other non-school days, as reported by Ariana Figueroa of the nonprofit news organization New Jersey Monitor. The New Jersey law also lowered the age for parental consent to obtain a teen work permit. However, both teens and their employers must still register with the state’s Department of Labor. A new online “working papers” portal could help support enforcement and prevent exploitation, though that remains to be seen.

In other states, the situation is more concerning. Figueroa takes note of a new bill in Ohio that would enable employers to keep teens under age 18 on the job until 9 p.m. on school nights, up from 7 p.m. A similar bill in Missouri would raise the school-night work limit from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. for 16- and 17-year-olds.

In Iowa, the legislature is considering a bill to regarding the employment of children as young as 14 in roofing, mining and other dangerous occupations. Industry advocates promote such work as training programs, but critics point out that training programs can be just as dangerous.

"A kid can still lose an arm in a work-based learning program," Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, told the Des Moines Register.

What businesses can do

In one indication that illegal child labor is nearing a crisis, on March 24 the U.S. departments of Labor and Health and Human Services announced a new Memorandum of Understanding that formalizes their joint efforts to enforce FSLA standards.

The new MOU “represents unprecedented steps to maximize collaboration between the two agencies to prevent and address illegal child labor,” according to the Health and Human Services Department.

That is a step in the right direction. However, business leaders cannot drop the problem of illegal child labor in the hands of federal agencies at time when states are relaxing their laws. 

Business leaders who are considering teen job applicants need to refresh their knowledge of state child labor laws. They also need to be aware of new state legislation that runs counter to the protective aims of FSLA standards.

Above all, business leaders need to help reform exploitive age-based wage systems. “At the state level, lawmakers should eliminate subminimum wages for youth and raise the minimum wage, eliminate the two-tiered system that fails to protect children from hazardous or excessive work in agriculture, strengthen labor standards enforcement, and empower young people to build and strengthen unions,” Sherer and Mast recommended in their report for EPI.

That may be a bitter pill for employers to swallow in terms of direct labor costs, but it is one that business leaders who profess to care about education and child welfare will have to take. That is, if they truly care about these things.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey