Labor crunch triggers widespread effort to loosen teen labor rules

The proposed changes would allow youngsters in their early and mid-teens to work more hours and handle alcohol.
The rule changes would allow restaurants to use more teen labor. / Photo: Shutterstock

A shortage of job candidates has prompted the legislatures of at least 10 states to propose easing restrictions on when and where teenagers can work, fueling a controversy that’s sucking in restaurants.

Many of the suggested regulatory changes address either the hours minors can work, particularly during the school year, or how exposed they can be to the sale of alcohol.

Success in pushing the measures forward correlates closely with which political party controls a state’s legislature and governor’s mansion.

In Iowa, for instance, where Republicans control both chambers of the statehouse, GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds has said she’ll sign a pending bill that gives restaurants far more leeway in their scheduling of teens.

The measure, already passed by the state Senate and House of Representatives, would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work until 9 p.m. on school nights and until 11 p.m. at other times, or two hours later than they’re currently permitted.   Their shift on any given night cannot exceed six hours, an increase from the current limit of four hours per day.

Ohio has similarly raised the legal knockoff time during the school year to 9 p.m. if their parents approve.

A bill moving through the Missouri legislature would push back the cutoff for teens to 10 p.m.

Among the more controversial provisions of the Iowa legislation is an OK for workers aged 16 and 17 to serve alcohol if they have a parent’s permission and food is being sold. The youngsters can only deliver the drinks; they’re still forbidden to take patrons’ bar orders.

The measure also breaks new ground by creating a special driver’s license that workers as young as 14 could obtain to transport themselves to and from their jobs.

Similarly, Tennessee has reversed a law that prohibited 16- and 17-year-olds from working in a restaurant that generates at least 25of its revenues from liquor sales.

The other move a number of states are making to ease teen recruitment is doing away with stipulations that minors obtain what are often called work papers—permits that signify an applicant’s parents and school are OK with the youngster’s hiring. 

Arkansas, for instance, no longer expects restaurants or other employers to inspect the papers before extending a job offer to someone 16 or younger. Work papers were recommended but not a requirement.

Proponents say the change takes schools and the state out of the work evaluation, leaving parents as the decision-makers.

Opponents have blasted the measure as a way of sparing employers from verifying a teen applicant has adult approval to work and is actually the age they say.

Groups aiming to protect teens from exploitation by employers say they have reason to be alarmed by the rollback of protective measures currently on the books. Even with laws in place, they say, employers cannot be trusted to do the right thing in the face of an historic labor crunch.

They cite scandalous developments such as the U.S. Department of Labor’s discovery of 305 children working illegally within the 62 franchised McDonald’s restaurants in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Maryland. The infractions included hiring two 10-year-olds and allowing them to work some nights until 2 a.m.—without pay.

Under no circumstances should there ever be a 10-year-old child working in a fast-food kitchen around hot grills, ovens and deep fryers,” Karen Garnett-Civils, director of a DOL Wage and Hour Division district, said in a statement. “Child labor laws exist to ensure that when young people work, the job does not jeopardize their health, well-being or education.”

The three McDonald’s franchisees involved were fined a total of more than $200,000 for their violations.

Violations of child labor laws have increased 69% across all U.S. industries since 2018, according to the Biden administration. About 600 complaints are currently being assessed, following last year’s investigations of 835 employers.

The White House announced at the end of February that it would attempt to curb abuse through a variety of measures, including an increase in the fines permitted for violations of federal child labor rules. Currently, the penalty is capped at $15,138 per employee.

The administration also announced the formation of a joint task force between DOL and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to educate employers of their obligations under current law.

 “This is not a 19th-century problem–this is a today problem,” Marty Walsh, then secretary of the DOL, said in a statement. “We need Congress to come to the table, we need states to come to the table. This is a problem that will take all of us to stop.”

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