GOP Set to Roll Back Child Labor Laws

JESSICA VANEGEREN | The Capital Times |

If you’re a 16- or 17-year-old looking to make some good money this summer, you could be in luck.

Just in time for the long summer break, the Republican-controlled Legislature is expected to vote this week on a proposal that would roll back the state’s child labor laws, making them the same as federal child labor laws that govern 16- and 17-year-old workers. The move would expand the number of hours 16- and 17-year-olds could work in any given week and on any given day, essentially treating them no differently than adults in the eyes of the law.

The proposed changes —  pushed by the Wisconsin Grocers Association — were included in a lengthy motion authored by Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and approved along party lines June 3 by the panel. They never received a public hearing and are now part of the proposed biennial state budget.

“When the new administration came in, we asked our members what could be changed to help their businesses. And they said child labor laws,” says Michelle Kussow, the grocers association’s vice president of governmental affairs and communications. “We are ecstatic,” she adds of the 12-4 vote by the Joint Finance Committee.

Others are not as pleased. Jon Peacock, research director with the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, cautions the rollback of child labor laws comes down to “devaluing” the education of the state’s 16- and 17-year-olds.

“I don’t want the state to make all our decisions, but I don’t think any of us should assume a 16-year-old can make the best decision between the immediate gratification of earning pocket money versus a long-term investment in their future through education,” Peacock says.

According to an analyst with the Wisconsin Fiscal Bureau, the new law would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work an unlimited number of hours per week. Current law caps the number of hours they can work at 32 hours on a partial school week; 26 hours during a full school week; and 50 hours during non-school weeks, such as over spring break or during the summer.

The proposal would also allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work unlimited hours per day, except when they are supposed to be in school. Currently they are restricted to working eight hours on Saturday, Sunday and the last day of the school week — which is typically Friday — and five hours a day on school days.

The motion would also repeal the state law that prevents 16- and 17-year-olds from working more than six days a week. And 14- and 15-year-olds would be allowed to work until 9 p.m. on a school day, but only on the few school days that fall between June 1 and Labor Day (currently they can only work until 8 p.m.). Teens of all ages would still be banned from working during school hours.

The budget proposal also directs that any additional changes to the state’s child labor laws as they pertain to the amount of hours and times a teenager could work would require an act by the Legislature. Currently, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development has the power to make such changes.

Kussow says the new regulations would make it easier to create work schedules for teenage employees, a task she says is often “impossible,” especially for those who have other academic and extracurricular commitments.

And she says it will help teens compete for jobs in a marketplace where, because of the struggling economy and a recent hike to the minimum wage, adults are often eyeing up the same positions.

“When you add in the limited number of hours they could work … it was tough on teens,” she says.

Edward Lump, the president and chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, says his organization supports the changes, although it was not directly involved in pitching the idea to lawmakers. “We encourage young people to get jobs,” he says. “It’s a good way for them to pick up skills in the real world.”

He says what’s good for one kid, though, isn’t necessarily good for another. Not all kids can handle work and school. “Everyone keeps an eye on what the kids are doing (in the restaurants), but ultimately it goes back to the parents,” he says. “At some point, if the parent feels their kid is working too much, they have to step in.”