New Child Labor Laws Will Harm Children Nationwide

New Arkansas law rolled back crucial child labor laws. (Courtesy of Twitter)

New Arkansas law rolled back crucial child labor laws. (Courtesy of Twitter)

When I was 15 years old, some friends and I got our first jobs in our local pizza shop. We were eager to earn extra cash and get a taste of independence that we didn’t quite merit yet but nevertheless yearned for. In the process of getting a job, though, we discovered that our home state of Pennsylvania required people under the age of 16 to have a worker’s permit for legal employment.

These types of processes vary by state. For example, in the state of Pennsylvania, the permit has to be signed by a parent or guardian, as well as the minor’s school district’s issuing officer. It was fairly simple. Before I knew it, I was taking delivery orders and hoping customers would leave us a tip.

But Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R-Ark.) claims such a permit is a useless step in the process of hiring a minor. In early March, she signed H.B. 1410, or the Youth Hiring Act of 2023, which rolled back various child labor laws in the state. One of the implications of the bill is that 14 and 15-year-olds no longer need a worker’s permit to legally get a job.  

Bureaucratic measures are no fun for anyone. They can be cumbersome and often feel pointless, but there is typically a reason for them. This is especially true in the case of child labor laws, as all possible measures should be taken to protect the youth from predatory employers and poor working conditions, even if it means dealing with one extra piece of paperwork.

But what is at the core of this desire to “streamline” the employment process for 14 and 15-year-olds? Sanders says it’s a matter of convenience. Proponents of the bill also argue that it will make it easier for minors to support their families, allegedly helping alleviate financial burdens for low-income families. Those against the legislation, such as the group known as Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, say they’re concerned about exploitation. Not to mention the implications for immigrant children and unaccompanied migrants in particular, since they might require immediate employment to support themselves upon entry to the U.S.

I would add that if we’re depending on income streams from teenagers to aid upward class mobility, that’s a clear indication that the country is (and has been) in the midst of a poverty epidemic. If anything, this and similar legislation is a glaring reminder that, at the institutional level, low-income families  often must resort to extreme measures to stay afloat. The situation shouldn’t be so dire that it becomes a child’s responsibility to keep their families fed, clothed and sheltered.

The decision in Arkansas also isn’t an isolated situation. There are nine other states working on passing similar legislation, all culminating into a potentially problematic crisis for employed minors. It’s not a one-party issue, either, with a good number of both Democrats and Republicans supporting the effort to decrease protections for employed youth (although it is much more popular amongst Republican members). This is especially dangerous in the context of a 69% increase in illegal employment of minors since 2018, as well as a rise in violations of child labor law standards. Just look at Packers Sanitation Inc. located in the state of Wisconsin, where members of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division found that it had over 100 employees between 13 and 17 years old working “hazardous occupations and… overnight shifts” across eight states. The Economic Policy Institute reports that “​​attempts to weaken state-level child labor standards are part of a coordinated campaign backed by industry groups intent on eventually diluting federal standards that cover the whole country.”

In this current climate of weakening child labor laws, it is imperative to remain vigilant in the protection of the nation’s youth. The Arkansas bill is doing the complete opposite by offering an easier pathway for employers to exploit low-income children, which is the demographic we should be protecting the most. It seems almost too self-evident to say, but lawmakers cannot depend on children to bolster the economy through employment. If a simple slip of paper can help even one child avoid bearing this burden and enduring harmful working conditions, then it’s absolutely worthwhile.

Emma Lipkind, FCRH ’23, is a French and international political economy major and journalism minor from Holland, Penn.