NCL: Eroding Child Labor Protections in 2012 Will Put Some Teens at Risk in U.S.

[The following is a segment from NCL’s Five Most Dangerous Jobs for Teens 2012 Report]

The competitive teen job market means that some teens might be tempted to take jobs that are less safe than others out of desperation to find work. At the same time, some states and the federal government are taking steps that mean teen workers will be less protected than they might have been.

In early 2011, Missouri considered legislation that would roll back many child labor protections, and the state passed a budget that eliminated funds for child labor inspectors.

The state of Maine looked at—and thankfully defeated—a measure that would have allowed teens to work unlimited hours each day and would have permitted teens to be paid a “training wage” that was far below the minimum wage during their first six months of employment. Unfortunately, the Maine legislature passed a second measure that increased the number of hours that teens can work during a school week from the current 20 to 24, despite substantial research that working more than 20 hours during the school year is harmful to students’ education and increases the likelihood of their dropping out.

In Wisconsin last July, the state legislature adopted a provision that removes limits on the numbers of hours teens can work. Prior to the action, which occurred without any public hearing to consider the merits of the proposal, a teen in Wisconsin was limited to working 26 hours during the school week and 32 hours during a partial school week. When school was out of session, they had been limited to 50 hours per week. Now, the limits are gone.

Attempts to weaken child labor laws occurred in other states, including Ohio, Utah, and Minnesota.

U.S. DOL Withdraws Proposed Protections for Children Working for Wages on Farms

For the last decade, youth health and safety advocates had been anticipating stepped-up protections from the federal government in the form of updated hazardous occupations orders for agriculture, which have not been revised in over forty years. In September 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) proposed comprehensive set of protections developed from recommendations by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

These rules would have targeted the most dangerous farm tasks and prohibited children working for wages from doing them if they were under 16. The rules would have prevented minors from working in grain facilities—a site of 26 worker deaths in 2010—as well as banned minors from tobacco harvesting because of the dangers associated with nicotine absorption. Additionally, they would have prohibited children from working at heights greater than six feet because of the dangers of falls. The rules would have addressed the two leading causes of deaths on farms: the hazards of driving tractors and other machinery, as well as working with livestock in confined areas or when animals are unduly stressed. Children under 16 would have still been allowed to drive tractors if they took a comprehensive safety course. And all children working on farms owned by their parents would have remained uncovered under the “parental exemption.”

Despite this, some members of the farm community and the farm lobby mounted a vigorous campaign against the safety protections. Critics charged that the rules would “kill” the family farm and make it impossible to train the next generation of farmers. The health and safety and child labor advocacy community maintained that these positions had little validity and that protections provided by the rules would outweigh any minor inconveniences that accompanied their implementation. The DOL meanwhile announced that it would “re-propose the parental exemption” to make sure that some of the farm community’s concerns were addressed and that children were allowed to work on relatives farms without the new protections.

These assurances did not quiet the torrent of vocal opposition, much of it built around inaccurate and misleading arguments. Critics argued that the rules would prohibit children from using flashlights and water hoses on farms—both were clearly not the intent of the rules, which only banned hazardous work. Some said that the rules would prevent kids from doing family chores. Under intense, unrelenting pressure from the rules critics and conservative, anti-regulation members of Congress, DOL announced in April 2012 that it would withdraw the rules and not re-propose them during the Obama Administration.

The withdrawal represents a stunning blow to efforts to improve the safety of child workers on farms—the most dangerous sector where we find children working in large numbers. The Child Labor Coalition, which NCL co-chairs, estimates that 50 to 100 children will die over the next decade as a result of the failure to implement the rules update. Labeling the decision a “terrible mistake,” Minnesota’s Star-Tribune newspaper noted, “studies of farm accidents and fatalities bear out that some jobs are just too dangerous for the young.”

NCL believes that the decision of the Obama Administration to halt improvement and refining of the occupational child safety rules for agriculture represents an abdication of the administration’s responsibility to protect our nation’s most vulnerable workers—child farm workers. Replacing these regulations with voluntary education and training programs is not an adequate substitute.

The combined rollback of state protections in Missouri, Maine, and Wisconsin and the withdrawal of agricultural safety rules for child workers by the federal government sends a chilling message to young workers. Without strong child labor laws and vigorous child labor enforcement, America’s youth will needlessly be injured or killed in the workplace. It took a century of diligent work by child welfare advocates and state legislatures to build a body of law that protects children. Now is not the time to turn back the clock to an era when children were asked to fend for themselves in the workplace.